Blues in Boston: An Interview with Larry Carsman
IN JANUARY OF 1972. The James Montgomery Blues Band, "undoubtedly the best unrecorded (group) in the area" (Jon Landau, Phoenix, March 15, 1972) played the historic and suspicious opening of the Club Zircon in Cambridge to the kind of packed and enthusiastic audiences which had come to characteries the band. Then at the height of a predominantly local popularity and reknown, they were significantly responsible for the impetus toward interest in live blues groups--particularly local, young and white--which has been manifested recently in the emergence of such clubs as the Zircon, Joe's, and the Speakeasy in Central Square. Many will remember jammed performances of the James Montgomergy Band at Jack's or the Jazz Workshop and in concert, as high points in the recent history of the blues in Boston.
Over the past year some things have changed. The Phoenix is defunct; the James Montgomery Blues Band, though still unrecorded, has set its sights on making it big, with recording imminent. In pursuit of fame, they have ranged far from Boston and have outgrown the purely local following so notably cultivated over the last year and a half. Lake the J. Geils Band, they hope for a national reputation, national media-oriented identifies as musicians, and national-sized dough stardom, the height of professional success, the logical ambitious step for a band who proved unequivocally to Boston audiences what a mindblowingly good high energy crowd-drawing and of musicians they were. They decided to "take it to the top.
However, the James Montgomery Blues Band of albums to come will still leave unrecorded the band of the past year. The style of music, life and business began to change as the demands of success led to increasing pressure to produce, travel, and reflect a projected image. As a result of these changes, Mr. Larry Carsman, lead guitarist and "charter member" from before the beginning, left the band. The story of the present Larry Carsman Blues Band begins with the inevitable question of why Larry left the Montgomery Band around April of 1972. The answer shows that, more accurately, the band left him.
More subtle than the greatness and rush of widespread popularity was the challenge to resist success and stick with the blues. Physically and morally exhausted by the direction the band was taking, Larry had to separate the music from the show, the vocation from the hype, ego, money and exploitation. Rather than sacrifice health, values, peace of mind and a thriving and dedicated full-time job of teaching guitar, he decided not to stay around for the album. Larry is interested in seeing a tradition carried out, locally, which at one time was embodied in the James Montgomery Band.
THAT TRADITION BEGAN personally for Larry when he formed the "old Gold Brothers band" in Detroit, consisting of all the original members of the James Montgomery band--Larry James, Billy Mather, pass genius and David Case on organ. Gradually the band came east. Larry following James and Billy to Boston, where Larry Carsman's Gold Brothers became known as the James Montgomery Blues Band. Some of the songs that band stood by date from G.B. days and have come through the Montgomery Band with Larry to be performed now in the Larry Carsman Band--fans of James will recall the favorite "Some Kind of Wonderful" sung by Larry as well as such classics as "I Feel Good" and "Massin' with the Kid" This is the tradition which the Montgonters band began to leave in the quest for wider audiences and reputation.
Besides musical and career reasons, Larry gives "being too lazy to travel" as one of the factors influencing his decision to leave James. The whole problem of a band's relationship to its audiences, as well as to itself and its music, arose. It's more than the music, and it's only the music. It's spontaneity, "playing the night as it comes," letting the audience know that the band understands and appreciates the audience's appreciation of them, and above all, mobilizing the energy of the audience to get the band off is much as vice verss. And avoiding at all costs becoming an expioitable commodity under commercially oriented management. To take on the task of super-charging the audience unfailingly and single-handedly, is, Larry says. "Too much work for me."
Every performer needs the audience, but in what way? This facet of the art led to the split between Larry and the Montgomery Band as much as did the polishing, pressuring, and restructuring of the band's musical style. ("It's no good if it doesn't have mistakes," says Larry). Sincerity between band and audience is extremely important in Larry's view, and because of the quality of this mutual regard he feels much more at home playing "for people I know... I'm not into being a big star; I just like to get up there and carry on." Feeling that it would be grotesque to have $200,000 (or so) in the bank at the age of 22 and amentourage of fans, cliques, trade groupies and hypers all around, Larry has formed his own band to avoid these pitfalls.
He doesn't expect these problems of commercialism to arise for the new band. "I have no intention of making it," he says, there will be no cliques. "You can't walk into Jack's and find me sitting there, you won't find me coming over to your house for a little coke--well, maybe that's not true--but I'm a Capricorn. I like my house... I won't want people to buy my records cause there probably won't be any."
The band's able manager. Chris Crounse Simmons '74, sees eye to eye with Larry on the nature and number of gigs to be taken and will play a large part in realizing the band's intentions of becoming a community band in the way that the Montgomery group began. From all evidence so far, the Larry. Carsman Blues Band will easily gain the desired audience working only 2 or 3 nights a week, and without leaving the Boston area. By playing small clubs, fraternities, school concerts, and dormitories, for instance, they hope both to avoid the commercial exploitation of the "music scene" and to attract the audience who are truly as into hearing them as they are simply into playing, doing what they enjoy. "I don't mind being known," Larry says, "for reasons of playing, not PR."
"I NEVER DREAMED the band would be so good," says Larry after loss than 3 months together. "We get better every time we play." The band is special not only in its commitment to the immediate community and a strictly part-time career, but also in the relative inexperience of its members. Aside from Larry, who has been playing professionally for the better part of the last 10 years, this is the first working, performing band for the other players. Both K.T. Wolff, bass player, and Bobby (Seedy) McPheety, rhythm and lead guitar and vocals, are former members of the Pure Cane, one of those formative, short-lived, lively and little known local bands whose main contribution to posterity has been mountains of coke cans and ashes in the living room and some fine tunes sung and soloed by Bobby in the Carsman Blues Band. Fred Lappin, the band's drummer, is amazing in his second year of playing drums, and his first band. Previous work for Fred includes occasional performances with Bonnie Raitt in Boston. Larry Coben on harmonica, an astoundingly agile player, is a student at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. "In a year, we'll be as good as the James Montgomery Band was last year," Larry says. "All the musicians (in the present band) will want to move on," he adds. "Nothing lasts forever and I don't ask it of the band." Freedom, spontaneity, sincerity, as long as they enjoy playing together, are what he does ask for, and a band that can carry on a tradition which Larry would "like to see carried on forever," beyond the boundaries of any single band.
Larry's band will be at the Zircon tonight November 16, through Saturday, November 18.
(Jan is Day Manager of the Crimson composing room)