The Boston Phoenix November 23 - 30, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Retro rockets

Charlie Chesterman and the Heygoods

by Jonathan Perry

Charlie Chesterman Charlie Chesterman laughs loud, early, and often. Over a meatloaf sandwich at the Deli Haus in Kenmore Square, he's describing the worst-case scenario surrounding his decision to release his new album, Ham Radio, on his own Aerola Recordings label. "I may find out this time next year that the people I think are out there and interested in what I do aren't really out there, and I've got a basement full of records." He punctuates the picture he's just painted with a wheezing guffaw that escalates into an almost hysterical cackle.

Chesterman's chuckle is usually heard when he's trying to assess his staying power as a musician on a local music scene that's turned over thousands of faces since he left his home town of Des Moines and landed in Boston with his band, the Law, in 1981. He's best known, of course, for his work with the '80s roots-pop outfit Scruffy the Cat. But he's never stopped writing and performing. "I'm really very thankful about that, because I'm trying to think of people who would've been around at the same time Scruffy got started who are still plugging away and most of these people don't do it anymore. I'd like to say I'm talented, but I have a little knack for a melody and then after that it's all luck. Along with being fortunate enough to have a history and background that pretty much whatever I've done as a musician has always been accepted. That's not a brag, that's just -- I'm fascinated by it because I don't understand it."

Industry bigwigs may have their reservations about Chesterman -- he's no longer affiliated with Slow River/Rykodisc, the Salem-based label that put out each of his last three albums before its merger with Palm -- but listeners who still like their rock and roll served neat, with toasts to old masters like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, are plagued by no such doubts. And perhaps because it's been three years since Chesterman's last release, Dynamite Music Machine (Slow River/Rykodisc), Ham Radio sounds like a long overdue blast of tang 'n' twang. It's an album lousy with scrappy licks and scruffy hooks, and not one ballad in the lot.

"I really wanted to put out another record because I felt like I had the material and the band was playing really well," Chesterman says of his gamble to "sink or swim" by releasing Ham Radio on his own. "Dynamite Music Machine didn't do as well as Ryko thought, and along comes the merger with Palm and I kind of got lost in the shuffle and then it was free-agent time. But what's the point of belly-aching? I've had it happen before, when the label doesn't help out anymore and you don't know what to do and then the band breaks up and you're just screwed. It can get the best of people, and there's no reason to have that happen now. Why give up just because somebody else isn't going to help?"

Far from giving up, Chesterman talks like a guy who's just getting started. He's toying with the idea of releasing a downloadable, Internet-only Harmony Rockets album (a collection of short, fast songs named after his short-lived early-'90s band) on his new Web site (, and putting out a live album with his current band the Motorbikes, and recording a stripped-down solo album of just voice and guitar. At some point, he also wants to take a stab at making a "very, very beautiful pop record" with strings and horns, just because it's something he's never done.

For now, Ham Radio is sure to continue Chesterman's 20-year lucky streak with audiences who haven't stopped caring. The disc wears as comfortably as a favorite denim shirt, living up to its advance album-cover billing as "delicious and electric." With his easy-going voice out front -- nearly a dead ringer for Silos singer Walter Salas-Humara's -- Ham Radio is a raucous collection of cheeky numbers with lost-era-evoking names like "Mustang Twang" and "Crickets Love Song" (the latter's a homage to Buddy Holly's backing band). The opener, "When I've Got Me (And All I Want Is You)," sets the pace: it's a 2:21 freight train pulled along the tracks by the grimy, coal-shoveling guitars of Chesterman and Andy Pastore. Meanwhile, the crack rhythm section of bassist Jim Faris and drummer Gary Gendron never stops chugging. You could think of it all as an extension of the music he's loved since his junior-high-school days, when he played guitar in a '50s cover band ("a third-rate version of Sha Na Na"). It's high spirited and, as the London Sunday Times once put it, "uninfected by the postmodern irony virus." Chesterman giggles at the quote. "I'd like to think that everybody thinks that rock and roll's fun, or that rock and roll can still be fun. But I look around and I don't see it as much as I wish I did. And maybe I'm not looking around in the right places. But my music is not necessarily a reaction to anything as much as it's, well, trying to be honest."

The Heygoods The lights of town -- the full-length debut from the Heygoods, the husband-and-wife C&W singer/guitarist duo of Katie and David Champagne -- was conceived as a kind of aural Christmas card to be sent to family and friends, but it's turned out to be one of the most listenable local albums of the year. It also marks former Treat Her Right guitarist David's return to songwriting and performing after an extended hiatus, as well as a return to the stage by Katie, who fronted her own bluegrass-tinged country band, Great Atomic Power, a decade ago.

Although the two have been married for almost 10 years and David had sat in with Katie's band on guitar a few times, it wasn't until well into their marriage that a relative suggested they sing together. "David's sister got married and she asked us if we would sing a song together for her wedding, and I think it was the first time we sang together," Katie recalls. The Champagnes chose "Green Pastures," an old gospel song. The duet felt so good that they began performing low-key gigs around town once or twice a month -- sometimes with Treat Her Right pal Jim Fitting on harmonica -- under the name the Heygoods. And something that David Champagne had spent half of his life doing felt new again.

"We have a six-year-old [Montgomery] and a three-year-old [Gibson]," he explains over coffee at the Cézanne Café in Central Square, "and when the six-year-old was born, I stopped playing music for a few years because I had been doing it pretty much nonstop for 20 years and I was burnt out. But I had written some new songs that I wanted to play. And I've always liked singing these kind of songs. I grew up in the Midwest, so I heard country music on the radio as a kid -- you'd hear the Beatles and then Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and then George Jones on the same radio station." Prior to Treat Her Right, Champagne had done time in the Boston retro-country outfit Pink Cadillac, so he was no stranger to the occasional Lefty Frizzell cover.

Katie was thrilled with the prospect of performing again but wasn't so sure about the band's future. "In the beginning, I was thinking that David was just doing it as a `meantime' thing, before he started doing his own recording. I think I was loving it so much that I was afraid he was going to go and rock out with some guys. And then he said, `By the way, we're going to do some recording tomorrow.' "

The material on Lights beats with the heart of vintage C&W and bends with a breezy '50s rockabilly flair, thanks in part to stellar musical accompaniment. Bassists Andrew Mazzone and Katie's old Great Atomic Power bandmate, Johnny Sciascia (Tarbox Ramblers/Spurs), lend a hand, as do Billy Beard on brushes and Dinty Childs on mandocello. In addition to nine David Champagne-penned tracks (including the gorgeous title song, which is ravishingly sung by Katie with harmony support from David), the disc features burnished covers of tunes written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman ("A Mess of the Blues"), Felice and Boudleaux Bryant ("It's Late"), Mel Tillis ("Leroy"), and Paul Sapp ("Walkin' on Teardrops"). Champagne's compositions hold their own in this company; "A Lot To Lose," -- which he wrote after Montgomery was born, is both filled with gratitude and racked with self-doubt, and it stands with his finest work.

As for the Heygoods, they excel when the principals are exchanging vows -- or apologies. The funny, doomed "Conscience" is one of the best George-and-Tammy numbers that never was, with David's woe-is-me tenor volleying with Katie's lovely sob of a soprano. "I like having more of a conversation within a song," says David. "I think that anybody exists in relationship to other people, and it illuminates the song in a different way." The fact that the Champagnes recorded their vocals live, facing each other at one microphone, only adds to the impression that you're overhearing star-crossed lovers hashing out last night's skirmish -- or tomorrow morning's divorce hearing.

The Heygoods celebrate the release of The Lights of Town at the Lizard Lounge on Thursday December 7. Call 457-0759.

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