Gar Francis is back with another magical mystery tour of grit, grunge and psychedelic pop for the masses. His latest EP is titled Shine On and it takes you on a journey that is part nostalgia, part garage free form and all old-school mayhem. Gar Francis has always been the student of style, going way back into his formative years, playing in ‘70s bands such as the Rockids, a group that shared the CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City stages with the likes of the Ramones, Blondie and even the temperamental and feisty Roger McGuinn. He also did a couple of stints with the Doughboys, one of Jersey’s oldest garage rock bands.
The Doughboys were a regional success that earned their bread and butter by playing mostly covers, although they did go on to land a handful of charting tunes such as “Rhoda Mendelbaum” and “Everybody Knows My Name” (written by Bob Gaudio of The Four Seasons). They were also the house band at Café Wha?, an old watering hole located on MacDougal Street in the village.
Gar’s writing has always been no nonsense and basic. Keeping the focus on the idea is paramount, not the flash of a thing. You will not see this guitarist throwing out two-handed tappings or isotonic laden scales of blistering speed, and that is what makes him good. He understands his limitations and strong points and like most prolific players, plays well within his box. Music should flow through absolute feel and emotion, not fret board gymnastics and fashion pyrotechnics.
His choice of band for Shine On is top-notch as well. Utilizing the experienced skill of original Doughboys Mike Caruso on bass and Rocco Scavone on drums, his addition of Lee Fink on guitars and Kurt Reil on backing vocals rounds things out quite well, giving this a real band feel, not an overproduced symphony of cluttered confusion.
The disc title cut jumps off the platter with time tunnel intuition that paints a colorful, Peter Max picture of the days of Charlie Manson and Vietnam. Influential ghosts of The Turtles run rampant here, as does the grungy, garage roots feel of The Seeds, a sound that Francis has embraced for years. Premeditated chord changes, tube tremolo and drum fills leave me laughing at the irony that music always comes full circle. “Shine On” has a Frankenstein-like puzzle piece feel featuring the styling of Flo and Eddie, the soul of Sonny and Cher and the vision of David Bowie. Its eerie, sunny and very groovy baby! That is what counts in the end.
“Back In 1985” is exactly what it says it is. Think Tommy Tutone or The Traveling Wilburys and you would be pretty close to the bullseye. Feel good, jangly guitar rock that features the down-home harp of Kurt Reil. Blue-collar and unassuming, “Back In 1985” does not offend or impress, it is just kind of there. This would fit in with the various troubadours and six-string poets that wander the streets of Asbury Park with dungaree jackets and baseball cap fame on their mind.
“Blue Cadillac” just seems to come up flat. I guess if you dismiss the fact that Gar is talking about yet another Cadillac, in the same progression that I have been hearing for years, you might be good to go with this tune. Do not get me wrong, it’s not horrible, and once the band starts taking off, the true colors of what Francis is trying to do show up. Rather, it’s like staring at an autostereogram until you find the picture. The song has an interesting guitar interaction going on that takes the focus off the blues progression and puts it squarely on the harp wails of Reil, guitar bends and rhythm riffs that ultimately pull this out of the danger zone and put it back on the road to redemption.
“Tragedy” is back on point with its Bowie-esque warble and down-stroked rhythm guitar attacks. The melodic riff reminds me of just about anything The Byrd’s did and the great harmony vocals bring recollections of the Everly Brothers. This is a very nice job by Francis and Reil as far as harmonizing. Great thematic lyrics lead verse into bridge, chorus and back with precise and pitch-perfect perception. Guitars manhandle single line runs all slathered in slapback echo. I feel that “Tragedy” is a song that has the best amount of radio airplay potential and crosses from rock to pop to old-time rockabilly within its simple, but scalable framework.
“I’m Still Alive” bolts into the rock arena with distorted guitars and quaint idealism. Lyrical gems drop often here with “When hippies ruled the land” mix with exclamations stating, “I’m still alive” and “This lovely flower power may have been our finest hour.” This anthem of the generation that strived to bring us the summer of love gives a thumbnail look back to a different place. In addition, Francis has strong connections to power groups like The Who and Bachmann Turner Overdrive. Energy, action and the dark, brooding cynicism of the past blast straight into the present and it is a good place for a song, and indeed, an album to be.
Francis has many new believers riding on his stark, rock and roll style. With writing opportunities such as Jane Fonda’s new movie, spots for NASCAR, the Travel Channel and more, Gar looks to be moving into the compositional area that he is great at, namely writing for film and TV. While I do believe that this disc is focused enough and features some great talent, I also think that it retains a nostalgic feel, an almost obligatory style that I think Gar Francis is ready to leave behind at this point. Either way, one thing is for sure. Gar Francis is a survivor and still has a lot to say to a new generation of listeners. For more information on Shine On, head over to garfrancis.com.
Cape May Singer-Songwriter Festival March 30-31
It is not too late to grab your tickets for the Cape May Singer-Songwriter Festival next week. Featuring NJ’s premiere writers, this festival also welcomes artists from around the country. This year’s keynote speakers and featured performers will be Todd Sheaffer (Railroad Earth) and Christine Martucci. Martucci will kick it off on Friday at 5:15 p.m. with a 9:00 p.m. performance to follow. Sheaffer does the same on Saturday night.
Many workshops and educational forums are available throughout the weekend. Establishments all over town join in and lend their stages to the artists listed on the S.S. Cape May site. The center of the action is always at Congress Hall, a Shining-styled hotel with a bar that just reeks of over a century of social interaction.
Bands and performers to keep your eye on this year are Michael Janus and the amazing Arlan Feiles over at Congress Hall on Friday night. Janus goes on around 8 p.m. and Feiles takes the stage at roughly 8:45 p.m. Also, check out the great Americana sound of Williamsboy at Althea’s Restaurant on Ocean Street.
Check these times online to be sure of start times. I take no responsibility for confusing the shit out of you. If you are looking for a completely interesting way to spend your weekend, try the SS Cape May. It is worth the trip. For more information on hotels, restaurants, tickets and performers, head over to sscapemay.com.