Uplifting New Sounds, Still Rustic Overtones
FEATURE-November + December 2009
By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs by Nathan Eldridge
Turn it up, flop on the couch, and just listen to The New Way Out
In 1999, P. Diddy ushered seven guys from Maine through the velvet ropes at Arista Records’s biggest party of the year. Rustic Overtones couldn’t believe their luck. Clive Davis, career-maker and president of Arista, had signed them to the label, adding Rustic Overtones to a pedigree that includes Janis Joplin, Aerosmith, and Alicia Keyes. The guys had quit their day jobs to make a million-dollar record, and here they were at their industry coming-out party, about to take the stage in front of several thousand of the biggest artists and players in the music industry.
From the early 1990s on, Rustic Overtones built a loyal following in and around Portland through a serious dedication to playing—and partying—as much as possible. Everyone seemed to know the band with the funky horns and raucous stage presence, but it was their message as much as their music that had a local impact. “To me, Rustic is the glue that pulled the Portland music scene together,” says Ben Bazi, a drummer in Los Angeles who grew up under the influence of Rustic Overtones. “They said, ‘Hey, get your band out, record, play shows, and be part of the community.’” The simple formula seemed to work.
Or at least it got them to a national stage. What happened there is another matter. The memory of Arista’s A-list party still makes drummer Tony McNaboe squirm ten years later. “Clive Davis said, ‘Here are the four songs that you guys are going to play.’ All we had to do was go out and play them.” But it didn’t seem that simple to lead singer Dave Gutter. “I kept thinking, ‘What’s going to happen as a result of this?’ I’m going to go out there and sing, ‘One, two, check. To the people in the back.’ And they’re going to be like ‘Oh my God, this is corny!’ Or worse, they’re going to love it and I’m going to be the ‘One, two, check’ guy for the rest of my life.” In front of a hip-hop and R&B crowd that had just grooved to Monica, Gutter led the band through their most avant-garde songs full of feedback and distortion. In short: They rocked. Davis didn’t even wait to catch them in private. He reamed them out onstage.
However, this was not the moment that changed their fate; it was just one of many bellwethers marking the band’s uneasy relationship with the music machine. From the beginning, Rustic Overtones’s eclectic style was “hard to categorize,” a euphemism for radio-unfriendly. Some rock stations dismissed Gutter’s unique raspy voice backed up by horn-heavy rhythms as ska—or, more damning for airplay: hippie music.
Thinking back to early battles for exposure, McNaboe points out that breakthroughs weren’t always about sound or talent, but the people they surrounded themselves with and how far those people were willing to go for the band. The day a rock station in Northampton, Massachusetts, refused to play Rustic Overtones before an upcoming show, their hulking manager shaved his head, drove to Northampton and slammed their new disc on the station manager’s desk,
screaming, “We’re not a f---ing hippie band!” Rustic Overtones hit the air.
The big-label experience was a contrast. The band felt that Clive Davis had tried to nurture their originality, but the label’s demands were stifling. “We were touring over 200 days a year and then we had a year and a half where we weren’t allowed to play concerts. That started to breed a lot of resentment towards the industry,” says McNaboe. For Gutter, it was the twilight zone. The band had recorded tracks with Funkmaster Flex, Imogen Heap, and David Bowie when Gutter found himself sweeping floors in a Portland warehouse, sounding unhinged. “I was telling the guys I worked with, ‘Yeah, I was just down in New York with David Bowie and Joey Ramone.’ They were like, ‘This motherf---er is crazy! He thinks he was with Bowie! Yeah, and I was with Bruce Springsteen!’”
In the end, the band woke up one morning to find their patience with the label would not be rewarded: Arista had ousted Clive Davis. In the wake of file-sharing shockwaves and profit-margin worries, big music reorganized. There was a complete regime change at Arista, and the “industry people” who had been Rustic Overtones’s advocates vanished. “One guy who compared our record to the birth of his child just stopped taking our calls,” says Gutter, “It was like, ‘Hey, remember us? You said I was the next John Lennon!’” The saving grace was that the label let them walk with their masters, allowing Rustic Overtones to release ¡Viva Nueva! on Tommy Boy in 2001. Their video for the song “C’mon” made it to MTV2, but there was no great run on album sales.
The breakdown of Rustic Overtones’s bigbreak may have saved their soul, despite the fact that it disrupted their momentum and lead to their disbanding. In May 2002, Rustic Overtones played a sold-out farewell show at Portland’s State Theatre, after which band members moved on to other projects including As Fast As, Paranoid Social Club, Ray LaMontagne, Seekonk, and Soulive. In 2007, they reunited in front of 6,000 fans in Portland’s Monument Square. As Gutter says, “We could be Sugar Ray right now. They’re rich, but they have no credibility.”
Ask local Maine musicians about Rustic Overtones today and variations on three themes emerge: (1) Rustic Overtones was the band that proved you can make Maine your home base and still produce high-quality records. (2) Each member has astounding natural talent that, when ignited by the band’s chemistry, creates a coveted “tight” sound. (3) Even if Rustic Overtones was not your cup tea, you could hear something different about them early on. Their sound was big.
Now, it’s even bigger. The band is recording an album, The New Way Out, due in mid- November. Many of the songs feature lush arrangements of strings and woodwinds that round out their sound by adding ying to yang. A track called “The Blues” is rich and filling, the kind of song to turn all the way up, flop on a couch, and just digest. “The music that we’ve made since we got back together has this uplifting, hopeful quality to it because we’re all just so happy to be back, playing with each other, feeding off the energy,” says Gutter. Their joy is evident in extended track lengths: several songs break 10 minutes.
They’ve also turned their energy toward galvanizing the Maine music scene, co-headlining this summer’s inaugural Machigonne Music Festival in Portland with Ray LaMontagne. McNaboe says, “There are so many good bands that don’t get support here. We like to collaborate. That’s an important part of knowing where you’re from, staying there and being grounded.” McNaboe has enjoyed sharing the scene with his close friend, LaMontagne, who got big so fast he skipped Portland on his way from Lewiston-Auburn to the real L.A. The band hopes to grow Machigonne with LaMontagne into a three-day, Maine-centric experience that highlights the state’s music as well as its food, drink, and scenery.
They also look forward to touring again, maybe with a different name. Gutter says, “We hate the name Rustic Overtones. We’ve hated it forever.” They’ve kept it out of fear that fans could feel betrayed. It’s the same reciprocal loyalty that has kept them in Portland. It may also be the curse of music champions in Maine. “We’re like the Red Sox before they won,” Gutter says. “We’re waiting to win before we leave.”
The thing is, Rustic Overtones never wanted to win. They just wanted to play.