The Boston Phoenix
January 27 - February 3, 2000

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Night lives

Mark Sandman's Morphine are reborn

Cellars by Starlight by Matt Ashare

Morphine It's late October, and I'm sitting across from drummer Billy Conway and saxophonist Dana Colley at what used to be Mark Sandman's kitchen table, picking self-consciously at a piece of to-go vegetarian lasagna from the City Girl Café and trying in vain to recall how one usually goes about initiating the kind of casual conversation that puts everyone at ease. At a loss, I turn my head to survey the surroundings -- the spacious SoHo-style Cambridge loft where, less than four months earlier, Sandman had been living happily with his girlfriend, Sabine, and rehearsing and recording with his band Morphine. What to do with the loft and its music-related contents? Like the Morphine album Sandman had finished mixing just weeks before his death and the issue of whether Colley and Conway would ever have a chance to perform that material live, the loft had become a looming question mark hanging over the wreckage of Morphine. "It feels really strange to be here," I hear myself blurt out before I have a chance to stop. "It's just that I haven't really been here since, ah, well, since, ah . . . since, ah, you know . . . " So much for casual conversation.

It was the Fourth of July weekend when Boston got the news that 47-year-old Mark Sandman had suffered a fatal heart attack while performing with Morphine in front of a festival crowd in Italy. Aside from being one of Boston/Cambridge's more valued musical ambassadors to the world, Sandman had been the prime musical mover behind a vital local network of players whom he drew to a place where avant intersected with pop, rock with jazz and blues, old with young -- "the central nervous system of our scene," is how Either/Orchestra saxophonist Russ Gershon remembered Mark in a eulogy he delivered at the funeral. In the weeks following Sandman's death, various members of that scene came together in various configurations to play music -- Mark's music -- at Conway's farm, Sandman's loft, the Lizard Lounge, and, on a violently rainy July 25, a memorial concert in Central Square.

In February, following the release this Tuesday of the new Morphine album The Night (DreamWorks), a more formalized ensemble will convene and attempt to pick up where Morphine left off, or at least to carry Sandman's music forward in his absence. The nine-member Orchestra Morphine features Colley on tenor, baritone, and bass saxophone; Conway on drums and percussion; Gershon on tenor saxophone; original Morphine drummer Jerome Deupree; trumpeter Tom Halter; keyboardist Evan Harriman; bassist Mike Rivard; and singers Laurie Sargent and Christian McNeill. The group have four area shows scheduled in February: the 4th at Pearl Street in Northampton, the 6th at the Somerville Theatre, the 11th at the Higher Ground outside Burlington, Vermont, and the 12th at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence. They also have a few shows booked for March, in Washington (DC) and Philadelphia and at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. And come May, they'll be embarking on a full national tour, which will be followed by a summer tour of Europe that, if all goes according to plan, will bring them back to the site of Sandman's last stand, the Nel Nome del Rock festival in Palestrina, Italy.

In a way, it's fitting that Colley and Conway have enlisted a group so much larger than the Morphine trio -- "Morphine times three," as Colley jokingly referred to Orchestra Morphine -- to tour behind The Night. Because The Night was the first time Sandman felt comfortable reaching beyond the two-string-slide-bass/baritone-saxophone/drums trio format to incorporate a range of other instruments and a number of different players on a Morphine album. For starters, along with his usual two-string slide bass and part-guitar/part-bass-tritar inventions, he's credited with everything from traditional four-string bass, acoustic guitar, and trombone to the distorted electric guitar that howls in the background on the tempestuous and vaguely discordant "So Many Ways" and the gorgeous skeletal grand-piano chords that lay the foundation for the disc's soulful title track. And, according to Conway, nearly all the songs feature him and Jerome Deupree playing in tandem. "There were a bunch of tracks for the album where Jerome and I had no idea we were recording a song. You know, because we wouldn't always have the headphones on. We'd hear his bass in the room and there'd be a microphone and Mark would be singing. And he just motioned for us to keep going. That's how loose it was. I think `Like a Mirror' was like that."

Elsewhere, for two of the disc's more musically challenging tracks, the Eastern/Arabic-tinged "Rope on Fire" and the bluesy "Take Me with You," Sandman wrote string-trio arrangements that were executed by violinist Joseph Kessler, cellist Jane Scarpantino, and, in keeping with Morphine's low-rock tradition, double-bassist Mike Rivard. Sandman's pal John Medeski of Medeski Martin and Wood was tapped for some of his virtuoso organ playing on another couple of tracks, the grooving party-time tune "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer" and the moodier, mysterious "I'm Yours, You're Mine," in which deep sax tones mesh with Medeski's Hammond chords to create a dense dark drone that hovers like an impenetrable fog around Sandman's distant vocals. And Sandman also brought in a few friends from the local music scene to record some background vocals, including Margaret Garrett and Tara MacManus of the blues-punk duo Mr. Airplane Man (whose first demos Mark had produced) and Linda Viens and Carolyn Kaylor of Crown Electric Company.

"I think Mark really had designs on the this record to do something not necessarily more hi-fi but that was more produced," Conway recounts. "It sort of became the vernacular that there were old Morphine songs and new Morphine songs. And Mark was constantly pushing toward what he thought of as the new Morphine songs. He was after something that was beyond where we were at. So it was a struggle for him to get us to that point. I don't think he could have articulated what it was he was after. He just sort of knew what he didn't want. It was like, the first four records were one aspect of the band and then this record was going to be the beginning of the next phase. It wasn't a conscious thing -- it wasn't like we said, `Let's go and make a record with strings.' It was just a very natural thing."

Colley adds, "I also think Mark was a little disappointed after like swimming that people were saying, `How long can they continue to do this thing with just bass, drums, and sax?' "

"He kept on saying that most bands don't have to reinvent their sound for every album," Conway continues.

"But the whole bass/drums/sax thing was based on a misconception to begin with," reveals Colley, "because it really was never as simple as we had been telling people."

True enough. Sandman wisely used the concept of low rock, of the guitar-less trio, of the bass with only two strings as a hook, to draw media attention and create a mystique around the band. In other words, he had some P.T. Barnum in him. Yet a number of Morphine songs broke with the low-rock formula -- "In Spite of Me," from the Cure for Pain album, featured Jimmy Ryan on mandolin, and then there was the blatantly Prince-ly synth on like swimming's "Early to Bed." Besides, though Morphine were a discrete unit -- the Sandman/Conway/Colley trio -- Sandman was always working on his songs, Morphine songs, in other ensembles, like the funkier guitar-and-horn-section-driven Hypnosonics (whom Orchestra Morphine most resemble) and the folkier Pale Brothers (with mandolinist Jimmy Ryan). So with Morphine, you were really getting only part of the picture. But what made The Night so different is that for the first time Sandman recorded and produced more or less the entire album himself at High-n-dry, the home studio at his Cambridge loft, instead of simply demoing the songs there and then heading into a commercial studio with a professional producer to do the real thing. And that gave him the freedom to experiment more with arrangements and instrumentation, and the flexibility to allow some of what he'd been doing in his other projects to seep onto a Morphine album.

"We were always recording ourselves at the loft," Conway recalls. "And we always liked the sound of our own lo-fi gear. But during the period that we were working on this album, Mark was upgrading the studio equipment and it was getting more hi-fi. And it's always been so much more comfortable for us to record here at the loft than at a regular studio. I mean, it was a musician's dream, full of great microphones and instruments. And yet we were at home, so it was really casual. Some days you'd come over to record and you would not even play. You'd just end up listening to music all day. But it was a beehive five days a week, for us anyway. There were people coming and going all the time."

As Colley sees it, "Every song Mark ever wrote got put through different structures, different arrangements, different tunings, different band formats. It would never be the same twice, ever. It was always evolving right up until the last second before it got put on tape."

"For example, the song `I'm Yours, You're Mine' goes back to the Treat Her Right days," Conway explains, referring to the band he and Mark were in before Morphine. "It had been kicking around for a long time. We recorded it with a traditional drum track, but we ended up with a track where it just had hi-hat. I think we went off in that direction with it because Mark didn't want to treat it like an old Morphine song."

It is a shame that Sandman isn't around to help take the songs from The Night to the next level in a live setting. Or to enjoy the fruits of the album that stands as a major artistic breakthrough for him and the band. Morphine had been in something of a holding pattern for the couple of years following their initial national successes. And Sandman had struggled with the difficult decision of where next to take the band. It is, however, a relief not only that the people Sandman brought together to make music at his loft are continuing to play together, but that they are giving his music a chance for a second life.

"We learned at the memorial concerts and in the rehearsals leading up to it that Mark's songs are really good songs that somebody else can sing," Colley says. "And we also realized that there is a lot of life left in these new songs, because we didn't get to tour behind this album with Mark. So the way I see it, we can either close up shop or we can figure out a way to go out there and play these songs for people. I mean, I can imagine feeling different about it if, for example, we'd been out on the road touring behind this record when it happened. And I have to admit for myself it's important to make sure that it doesn't turn into an elongated funeral. But for me it's actually easier to play the songs with people who are giving something to the songs than it is to listen to them."

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