Al Schnier brought his ever-improving side project Al and The Transamericans to The Dunhams' house for yet another memorable Dunhams Living Room Session. The band is in quintet form now, featuring Schnier's moe. band mate Vinnie Amico on drums, veteran Strangefolk member Erik Glockler on bass, and Kirk Juhas, a keyboardist from a band known mostly by Northeasterners for their pub greatness, Free Beer and Chicken.
However, it was Gordon Stone that I first accosted when the humble van and trailer pulled into The Dunhams' driveway. Stone has been talked about in the Northeast for his pedal steel and banjo playing for many years. His work on Phish and Phish-related projects have garnered him much fame (he was a vital part of Mike Gordon's solo debut last year), but his own band is quite remarkable as well. I chatted with Stone about this group, and their current bassist, Brian O'Connell (whose band, the now-defunct Uncle Sammy, I was a huge fan of). Gordon would later slide me a CD of a trio version of his band performing seven excellent originals at the River Street Jazz Café in Plains, Pennsylvania. "Pachysandra/Sunday Driver" displayed O'Connell's prowess on the bass and a cover of Monk's "Well, You Needn't" driven by Stone's pedal steel was more than impressive. (You GOTTA hear Stone's take on that familiar central riff.)
Al and The Transamericans at The Dunhams
Dunham had a moment of bonding with Glockler when he was reminded that Erik had been a fan of his back in Dunham's early days in radio (yes, back in the '80s) in Maine. Dunham seemed pleased to talk with someone who remembered his pre-Georgia days, and the two had a spirited Haney (what we Massachusetts people call those from Maine) discussion about lord only knows what.
Glockler had performed previously in the Living Room with Strangefolk, and Al and Vinnie had been there a couple of times with moe., but they still had to reacquaint themselves with the cozy unorthodox music venue. Amico set his drums up in the far corner of the living room, and Glockler and Schnier were side by side with their backs to the front of the house. This left enough room for Juhas to set up in the center of the room, and Stone to Schnier's left, just a couple of feet from the stairway that leads down to the music room. The Dunhams set up their camp on the stairway leading up, and they used their headphones to hear the full mix (the pedal steel and the keyboards were inaudible in the room). Since I had seen "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (one of Maria Dunhams' favorite Dylan songs) on Transamericans set lists in the past, I presented Al with a freshly printed copy of the tune's lyrics. Although we were treated to a tasty sound check run through of the song, it did not appear in broadcast portion of their visit.
Erik Glockler & Al Schnier at The Dunhams
The first song of their recently released Analog CD, "Guitar," is what The Transamericans chose to start the broadcast taping. Strong harmonies between Glockler and Schnier, and tasty low-key interplay between Juhas and Stone made for a "keeper" version of this song which will probably find its way to The Dunham airwaves for many years to come. Schnier took a concise acoustic solo (however, one of the sound check versions featured a much more exploratory instrumental) and displayed immediate comfort with The Dunhams' Living Room, using the tiny space between his mic stand and the wall to do a sort of shuffle/jump dance as the band toyed with the instrumental. Al and the band were charged up after this one, and they engaged in some lively conversation with the Dunhams. Al revealed that he felt very strong about the current quintet holding the Transamericans moniker. "We've found the right mix of enjoying each other's company, enjoying playing together, and having time off around the same time as each other" he said, "'cuz we all play in different bands." At one point, Dunham bounced from his spot on the stairs over to the mic-less Stone so they could share a microphone and some conversation on pedal steel players with names that begin with a "B."
The band was comfortable enough to unveil two originals that were new to the band this tour, the first of which Al introduced as, "In my mind a sequel to David Byrne's 'Once in a Lifetime.'" It seems as though this song is a speculation of what would happen if the "beautiful wife" went astray, leaving the "beautiful house" and all it represents behind. "Did you live and learn all of life's lessons?" Al sang, "'cuz everything here is just the same, everything here is insane." Schnier's commanding lead vocal suggested that the band has been working quite a bit on this one, and he saluted Byrne by throwing in a "Same as it ever was" at the end of the song.
When in Rome, do as The Dunhams do, so Al offered a version of The Grateful Dead's "Dire Wolf" as a picture of Atlanta's hippie couple with Garcia himself hung on the wall just behind Al's left shoulder. Stone delivered something very close to Garcia's pedal steel from the Workingman's Dead version on the introduction, and referenced Jerry's WD approach occasionally during the piece as well. This led to a conversation about Jamcruise, the recent moe. cruise, and Al's dream to have moe. park themselves on an island for a week-long laid back festival experience. Al then donned a mandolin and Stone a banjo for a heartfelt version of "Red Hill Road." This song, also from Analog, is about Schnier's hometown in western upstate New York.
This song was followed by the highlight of the visit, and another example of the special moments that happen in the intimacy of The Dunhams' Living Room. Al spoke of how in the last year it had been discovered that his daughter was autistic, and that it had rocked his family's world. He then delivered a gripping version of the emotional "Blue-Eyed Angel" he had written for her (the second new original the band offered). There was a simple elegance to the song, and the love behind it was palpable without being even the slightest bit sappy. "What are you seeing, what does it all mean," he sang, "how can you be so alone?" As Schnier finished, a visibly moved Maria Dunham returned to the subject of Al's daughter and an intimate conversation followed during which Al spoke specifically of some of the things the Schnier family has been through recently.
Erik Glockler & Al Schnier at The Dunhams
Perhaps to provide an appropriate juxtaposition, the band charged through "Waiting For The Punchline," with Juhas offering sharp keys, at times interacting with Stone's pedal steel wizardry, and at other times soaring above the fiery rhythms from Amico. Schnier's vocals became increasingly boisterous as the song progressed, until the band shook The Dunham walls, bringing this Living Room Session to an energetic close.
The Al and The Transamericans Living Room Session will air on The Dunhams Radio Program this Sunday April 4, and in the near future on the one-hour version of the show that airs in Auburn on 99.9 The Rock. The Dunhams will also host a 4:20 celebration at The Variety Playhouse with two of Georgia's hottest musical acts, Perpetual Groove and Dubconscious, on Tuesday, April 20.
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