Gary's Judas; Nuno's Mourning Widows
by Brett Milano
It's probably too soon to get sentimental about Extreme, who broke up just four
years ago. But it's worth remembering that, before the success of Godsmack and
the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Extreme were some of the biggest rock stars that
Boston had. Not that that made them any more fashionable at a time when an
earnest, mainstream rock band was about the worst thing you could be. They had
their biggest hit, "More Than Words," in 1991, and we all know what rock
smelled like that year.
Extreme's frontmen aren't too sentimental about the band either. As it happens,
singer Gary Cherone and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt were both playing in town
last week, and both have their minds on new projects. Bettencourt was at Axis
Wednesday to launch his as yet unsigned new band, Mourning Widows. And Cherone,
who's now halfway between a humbling spell with Van Halen and the launch of a
new solo project, is back on familiar territory, singing Judas in Boston Rock
Opera's production of Jesus Christ Superstar -- a project he first
became involved with in 1994, when did Jesus.
As I watched this year's production (which runs through this Saturday at the
Massachusetts College of Art's Tower Auditorium), my first impression was how
far it's come since the show was first done in the late '80s, upstairs at the
Middle East. Those early Superstars were in part an irreverent send-up,
with Zulus singer Larry Bangor putting some high camp into the Jesus role. But
it's gradually become more of a Broadway-style production, as faithful as it
can be to the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice original. A group of A-list local
players led by keyboardist Suzi Lee put a slightly rockier slant on Lloyd
Webber's score. And though the singing is fine all around, with Cherone working
the title song for all it's worth, it's the emotional conflicts that drive this
production, with director John Whiteside playing up the romantic triangle
involving Chris Mascara's tormented Jesus, Valerie Forgione's sexy/vulnerable
Mary Magdalene, and Cherone's eternally conflicted Judas. "I love that the show
portrays both men in their humanity," Cherone explains over espresso at
Cambridge's 1369 Coffeehouse. "People think of the betrayer, the stereotypical
angry Judas, but in this play you're meant to feel empathy. That's the biggest
challenge, aside from the keys of the freakin' songs."
Now that he's been on big arena stages, can he really find playing a small
theater a challenge? "Believe me, I'm as insecure as the next guy. I really
sweated last night at rehearsal, because there were only four people in the
audience -- when it's a big crowd, it becomes more abstract. And I'm working
with people who've been part of Superstar since way back, like Peter
Moore [Pontius Pilate] and Mick Maldonado [Caiaphas]. And John Surrette
[Peter], who's kind of my friendly rival from Malden -- he was in Boys' Life
when I was in [pre-Extreme band] Adrenaline, so he was a Mod and I was a
Still, even getting killed on stage can't be any harder than some of the shows
Cherone played with Van Halen. He made two albums with that band, though only
the first, 1998's Van Halen 3, got released. They were nearly through
with a follow-up that was being produced by Madonna's Patrick Leonard last year
when Cherone suddenly exited, with no explanation. "It was time," he says.
"There was never a definitive moment, but the writing was on the wall. They
sensed my unhappiness and I sensed . . . I'll say their
misdirection. I wish them the best and I know that rumors are flying. If Dave
[original VH singer David Lee Roth] comes back, awesome. If not, they'll land
on their feet.
"I never expected to be in that band in a million years. When I went to the
audition, I thought, `This is great -- I get to sing `Jump' and then I'll go
back to Boston.' But we hit it off and I still love those guys, there's no
dirty laundry there. The only problem was with the fans' expectations. I had to
keep reminding myself that it wasn't personal, but really it was
personal. It probably got to me a little bit. I didn't move like Van Halen and
didn't look like Van Halen, and I had to go out there every night with the
margin of error being pretty slim."
It probably didn't help that the set was heaviest on David Lee Roth and Sammy
Hagar songs. "That was my idea," he points out. "In fact, I did the set list.
They were willing to do Extreme songs, but I didn't want to play those with
anybody else. I figured that I joined a band that was 20 years old, and I
couldn't ignore 20 years of hits if I didn't want to get lynched."
The low point was probably a Great Woods appearance where Cherone lost his
voice and had to stop the show after four songs. "I go backstage and my brother
says, `Gary, man, you wouldn't want to be in the audience and hear what they're
saying about you -- "Bring back Dave! Cherone sucks!" ' So I asked my
brother, `What did you do?' And he says, `Oh, I joined in.' Thanks a lot, man.
There's a Cherone for you."
With a solo album just wrapped up, Cherone expects to be back on the circuit
early next year, and he plans to keep a Superstar song or two in his
set. "I just want to get out and play on any level. I'm getting back to feeling
uninhibited with my writing. The new material spans everything. Some of it is
techno/industrial, and there's some Nick Drake folk as well." And an Extreme
reunion? "It's not out of the question. We're all friends. There were touring
offers last year, but no one was really interested. Our getting together is
always in the future, and not the near future."
"I am so not there," is Nuno Bettencourt's reaction when the subject of
Extreme is brought up. He's backstage at Axis where his new band, Mourning
Widows, are about to make their local debut. Bettencourt hasn't lost the lean
rock-star look that he had in the Extreme days, and he's become an even more
hyperactive speaker. "Musically, mentally, spiritually, I have no want for
Extreme. And believe me, I've been asked. The day Gary was out of Van Halen,
the phone started ringing. I'm sure I'd love to play with the other guys again,
but that's for later, when we're older. I'm still way too hungry to do that
Still, Bettencourt has one Extreme connection in his life: his manager is
former Extreme drummer Paul Geary, who's also Godsmack's manager -- and as
such, arguably the most successful Extreme alumnus. "When he was in the band, I
always saw in his eyes a passion for management. And he's perfect because I
know him so well -- there's no games to be played between manager and prima
donna singer of band."
There's another irony there, since you might figure that Godsmack's brand of
high-testosterone rap/metal knocked more traditional hard-rock bands like
Extreme off the map. "To my mind, it was the alternative scene that really
knocked Extreme out," Bettencourt says. "Kurt Cobain single-handedly gave
everybody the wake-up call -- and for the good, I believe. He brought everybody
back to the basic power of songwriting. Now a lot of people in the genre that I
was in looked on that as crap, but I looked on it as genius. He inspired me to
sing and to do things more my way."
Bettencourt's 1996 solo album, Schizophonic, bore out the Nirvana
influence and was a real surprise for the few handfuls of people that heard it.
Growing away from his old band's mainstream rock, Bettencourt went to an edgier
kind of songwriting and a more tune-oriented, less guitar-heavy approach while
holding onto the best of Extreme's funk and prog-rock leanings. But the album
came out on A&M shortly before that label got absorbed into Interscope as
part of the Seagrams/Universal merger. "I'm proud of that album, but it wasn't
my idea," he now says. "There was a lot of label pressure, trying to make me
into this Clapton kind of singing guitarist. There were a lot of good songs,
but that's all it was -- a diary of a bunch of songs. It was a bit too
eclectic. So in a way I was relieved when the label fell apart-- I was afraid
that if it did well, I wouldn't be able to do the kind of band I wanted to do."
Indeed, he sounds like a man on a mission to put his new band across. He didn't
even mind my suggestion that the name Mourning Widows sounds just a bit Spinal
Tappish. "Really? I was thinking more of something like the Blushing Brides,
but hopefully a little more poetic."
The band, a power trio with his bass-playing nephew Donovan Bettencourt (who at
25 is only nine years Nuno's junior) and New Yorker Jeff Consi on drums, have
already released two albums in Japan. "I'd call it a heavy funk band -- not so
much a funk-rock `Walk This Way' thing but a more traditional funk thing.
Though you'll probably hear it and say, `What the fuck is he talking
Not the case, though you really wouldn't mistake the Mourning Widows for
anything but a rock band. Their set at Axis proved that they know their way
around a backbeat, and Bettencourt's always been good with big, meaty riffs --
it's funky, but more in the heavy vein of Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Underfoot"
and, yep, Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." After a fling with Nirvana-style
alterna-rock, this band return to the same reference points that helped define
Extreme -- the above bands and Queen being the most obvious -- with a
Beatles-derived sense of songcraft that wouldn't fit in the current metal
world. It's very much a '70s throwback, but one that's really starting to sound
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