Newfound Gratitude: A Conversation with Sister Hazel’s Jett Beres

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Dave Schlenker

In a recording career spanning more than 25 years, Sister Hazel has stayed the course and remained relevant in an industry of ever-changing styles and trends. Dubbed as one of the “Top Most Influential Performers of the Last 15 Years” by Performing Songwriter Magazine, the band has amassed an enormous fan base while being involved in charitable endeavors along the way. On Sunday, June 20, Sister Hazel will perform at Euphonious at the Birmingham Zoo. Recently, bassist Jett Beres spoke with us by phone from his South Florida home.

Birmingham Stages: Jett, thanks for your time. It’s almost impossible to interview any touring musician without asking what the past year has been like and how you kept your sanity through the Covid storm.

Jett Beres: We did some stuff over the lockdown year. We did some drive-in shows and we did some live streams and were eventually able to being in a small audience. We kept as busy as we could, but we’re a touring band and we’re used to being on the road 100 days a year. Starting with Memorial Day weekend, things are off to the races and I’m seeing our schedule looking pretty booked – it feels great. And I’ve got to tell you, my wife is happy about that too [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: I’m pleasantly relieved that I haven’t heard many tragic stories about musicians given the drought in travel and loss of income for such a lengthy period of time.

Beres: That’s an interesting point. I can speak from our perspective and our friends in other bands and you also have to think about the crews. A band like us has residual income, but crews live on the road and that’s their whole deal. Just in our little sphere, we saw a lot of struggling. Between the band and who we work with directly, there was a real sense of community and being there for each other. We felt that support from our fans in lockdown and I imagine most artists did – that’s what kept us alive. Although we’ve chosen to live this out-of-the-norm kind of life, it also creates some resiliency. After being together for 25 or 30 years, there is a newfound gratitude for each other, the music and our fans.

Birmingham Stages: We are looking forward to the Birmingham show. As you know, Birmingham has supported Sister Hazel from the very beginning and there is still great enthusiasm for your band here.

Beres: The calendar pops up and there are certain places where you say, “Alright!” Birmingham is always one of them.

Birmingham Stages: With band members residing in Florida, Georgia and Washington D.C., are there challenges to being geographically spread out?

Beres: We really kind of work out everything on the road. Being off the road, we recorded a song, “When Love Takes Hold,” and we recorded it all remotely from our hometowns and made a little video from it where we’re all in our home studios making the song. That was a first for us – we found that we could build a track with everybody in their own houses.

Birmingham Stages: With a large catalog of material now at your disposal, how does your band construct set lists these days?

Beres: We have about six to eight songs that we kind of have to play and we do about a 16-song set. The other eight to ten usually consist of a couple of new ones to get them out there and some old stuff including deep tracks. We also do one or two self-indulgent ones [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: How do you view the musical climate in the age of Spotify, Youtube, satellite radio and other modern outlets? What are the pros and cons of the current model?

Beres: That’s a good question and could probably be a whole hour-long conversation. We’ve put out a cassette tape [laughs] – can you imagine what we’ve seen in our career? CDs are really coasters and when your car starts coming without CD players you’re like, “I guess things are changing.” So it changes the structure and you don’t sell records like you used to sell records. I have embraced it and I like the fact that our fans all over can access the music. The biggest problem that I see is the attention span because of how the platforms are and how people are easily ingesting their music. My son’s in a band – my fan base will still buy stuff and put headphones on; his [fans] are going to watch it from the phone. He’s about to make a record and I’m thinking, “How in the hell are we going to market to his fan base that basically is tuning out after 30 seconds?” So that’s where it becomes challenging and I hope it doesn’t degrade the art in the process.

Birmingham Stages: Your band has literally played some of its songs thousands of times by now. How do those songs stay fresh and relevant to you after all the years?

Beres: There are certain songs we play the same out of respect for the song and the listener, but enough of our set changes and we build in moments of improvisation. What keeps it fresh are the fresh faces every night that you’re playing to and that are singing along. It’s the feedback you get from the venue.

Sister Hazel will perform at Euphonious at the Birmingham Zoo on Sunday, June 20. For more information, please visit www.sisterhazel.com or www.euphonious.ai.

Heaven is Music: A Conversation with Jamie Barrier of The Pine Hill Haints

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Abraham Rowe

A cemetery may be an unlikely rehearsal space, but Pine Hill Cemetery proved to be the place where Jamie Barrier and his fellow musicians would hone the sound of The Pine Hill Haints. Taking its name from both the location and an archaic English term for “haunting,” the band melds roots influences into a unique sound that befits its self-described “Alabama Ghost Country” style of music. On May 14, the band will release The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy [Single Lock Records]. Recently, we caught up with Barrier by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Jamie, thanks for your time. Where is your home base these days?

Jamie Barrier: You could say Florence or Muscle Shoals. I  live about 30 or 40 minutes north of the Tennessee River – I live in Tennessee right on the line. It’s where my family has been since 1814 or 1815.

Birmingham Stages: It’s hard to interview any artist without bringing up the past year. How did you spend your time since touring wasn’t an option?

Barrier: I did a lot of skateboarding and I did a lot of surfing. I live out in the woods so, COVID or not, I’m always writing and playing. I live so far from another human being – at times it was like it only existed on the news. I had COVID but may case wasn’t so bad.

Birmingham StagesWe are enjoying The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy. Were the songs on this album newer compositions, older compositions or a mixture of both?

Barrier: You know, it’s both. I’m always writing and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. The songs may not be good, but I’ve never had a problem writing. We play a lot of shows and [songs] get played a million times before we ever record them. For example, “Back to Alabama” – I remember rehearsing that with an accordion player back around 2008 or 2009. There are a lot of songs that I’ll just forget about and they’ll go unused and that’s what that one was. We played a show in Pensacola about four years ago and a boy came to the gig – there a lot of people that bootleg us – and he said, “Hey man, I bootlegged a show years back and I can’t find this on any of your records. Do you have a title for it?” and I was like, “I forgot all about that song” [laughs]. There you have it – I put it on the new record.

Birmingham Stages: The ability to woodshed songs before you record them sounds like a great way to refine them before going into the studio.

Barrier: It is. You can tell from the reactions if they have any merit or not. With our instrumentation, there’s only so much you can do without sounding monotonous so it’s good to play a lot and get things as unique and individual as you can. It’s a fun challenge.

Birmingham Stages: How do you reconcile the pros and cons of the current musical climate in the age of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other modern outlets?

Barrier: There a lot of people glued to the phone and there are advantages to be taken from it. I’m negative as far as all that stuff goes. I like to get out and play and go camping and travel and play music. Anything that’s driving people like cattle where they can be marketed and owned – I instantly get my hackles raised. Being from Alabama, we get accused of being these mountain and survivor types, so I feel resistance to the way the world is going. Everything I’ve learned has been out on the trail – I’ll see a band and friends will say, “Wait until you get to Michigan and see this band.”

Birmingham Stages: According to your bio, you grew up in a musical household. If you will, talk about the influence that had on you.

Barrier: I never knew them, but several years ago there was a band called The Barrier Brothers and they would play the Grand Ole Opry and they were known all around the Tennessee Valley. I always heard about them and I’m kin to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton. So when I was a kid that was always around. The first time I heard Black Sabbath, I was all in on it. My brothers play music and my uncle plays music and I was raised in the church so music has always been a heavy part of my life. I’ve always been told that Heaven is music.

Birmingham Stages: You mentioned the styles you were exposed to in your youth – country, gospel and hard rock – and all of those influences can be heard in your songs.

Barrier: You play in these big cities and you got San Francisco and play with a folk or bluegrass group and it is so good. What they’re doing is so pure, but in Alabama you have to be a jack of all trades. You’ve got to know your Skynyrd and you’ve got to know your hip-hop and Sabbath and your fiddle tunes. I feel like when you’re from somewhere with a lot more people, people are very selective. But if you’re where we’re from, you’ve got to know how to do some plumbing and change the oil. Musically, it’s the same. I like it that way.

Birmingham Stages: I know that every region of the country has great music, but I’ve always felt so privileged to come from the South. The fact that Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta are all within easy driving distance is still amazing to me.

Barrier: The ace up our sleeve is the religious element – the shadow of the Cross. Everybody in our area was either forced here from slavery or prison camps or they were seeking some type of religious freedom. We have a weird mix of God and the devil in this area that you may not have in the rest of the country. Everything here is about life after death. Soul music comes from the grave and the Second Line in New Orleans – that jazz music comes from the grave and rejoicing while you follow that coffin. That’s a special thing we have in the South.

Birmingham Stages: What are your band’s plans in the coming weeks and months?

Barrier: I’m trying to be patient. A year ago, we had 14 gigs in Japan, a 21-date tour in Europe and two tours out West. We had to cancel every one of them. Last April, we hit the hard lockdown and in my primitive mind I thought we’d sit tight for two weeks and it would all blow over. I kept constantly trying to set things up but they weren’t going to happen. I’m finally just letting them come to me. I want go west this summer so bad, but I’m going to try not to force it.

The Pine Hill Haints will release The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy on Friday, May 14. For more information, visit www.thepinehillhaints.com.

Review: SWEETTALKER

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Nashville is beset with talented singer/songwriters and Country artists, but SWEETTALKER is adding another quiver to the arrows of Music City. The quintet – founded by Ryan Pattengale and David Brown – offers an updated take on Pop and Psychedelia a-la ELO, The Beatles, Queen and Pink Floyd. The band’s new EP, Paradise, reveals a group that reveres its influences but is not beholden to them. Produced by Matt Goldman (Underoath, Casting Crowns) and recorded in numerous locations, Paradise accomplishes the difficult task of sounding fresh and familiar at the same time. The studio pairing of the band with Goldman results in a sonically-satisfying experience  that is icing on the cake of songs like “Tomorrow” and “Goodbye.” Bottom line – SWEETTALKER gives us even more reason to seek out live music once the cloud of COVID-19 lifts.

Todd Rundgren launches innovative virtual tour

By Tommy Terrell

Photo Credit: Lynn Goldsmith

 

Todd Rundgren has never been one to sit still or accept whatever current technology or trends are in the mainstream.  Having already been a pioneer in computer/video technology and interactive media, Rundgren once again finds himself at the forefront of live performance in the age of COVID.

Rundgren will launch a virtual Clearly Human Tour on February 14th, which will feature 25 performances geo-fenced and localized to different U.S. cities but performed from a single venue in Chicago.  Each show will be “designed” to the nuances of each city on the tour schedule, including local landmarks on a video wall as well as city-specific catering for the band and crew in order to create an accurate sense of place.  Single-ticket purchases will be limited to fans who live within each show’s metropolitan area, while others may purchase multi-show ticket bundles to watch virtually.    

Remote meet-and-greets with Rundgren will be available at every show, as will options to select from multiple camera angles.  A virtual audience will be displayed on several rows of video screens in front of the band, enabling them to “see” their audience as they perform.  A handful of tickets will be available to attend each show in person (socially distanced of course), in accordance with local COVID laws in Chicago at that time.

While the concept of this tour lends itself to the limitations of a social-distancing world, Rundgren actually conceived the idea several years ago as a solution to the challenges of reducing his own carbon footprint during the current conditions of climate change.

“My whole impetus for coming up with this started back when the climate was affecting travel, and I had changed the way I travel for touring to be much more based on flying than driving,” said Rundgren in a recent video press conference discussing the tour.  He originally envisioned himself and his band performing in one venue while a live audience watched via closed-circuit video from another venue in a different city.  “I thought maybe you could tour virtually – set up in one place and you could send the show out to another venue, so people would still have the rest of the experience… as if it was a live show.  Then the recent pandemic meant that the audience couldn’t go to the gig either, and that’s when it became totally virtual.”

Rundgren says that this tour will be more like a Broadway show than a traditional travelling roadshow, with a higher level attention to making the stage setup more appealing to the virtual audience.

“You build your set, and you don’t have to move everything every day – you can make everything more elaborate…as opposed to the concept of putting something together, tearing it down the next day, and then putting up again the day after that.”

The Clearly Human Tour will be performed by a 10-piece band, and will feature songs from his 1989 album, Nearly Human, as well as other selections spanning his decades-long career.  Rundgren was originally set to do a traditional tour this February, but those plans were put on hold last summer when it became clear that COVID restrictions would extend into 2021.  It was then that he decided to re-visit his idea of a virtual tour.  Since Nearly Human was an album that was recorded “live” in the studio with a full band (as well as the subsequent tour), he thought it might be a good idea to update that experience for a virtual audience.

“I wanted to do something that (typically) might not be practical to tour with but has some high production value.  A large band gives the audience something to look at, with the band interacting and responding to each other,” said Rundgren.  “Having fun is more important, especially in our current environment.”

Rundgren has maintained a cult following with his legions of diehard fans ever since his first hit album, Something/Anything, in 1972.  Todd took a left turn with the eccentric A Wizard, A True Star the following year, and has seemingly continued to zig whenever he was expected to zag, which is precisely why he has endeared himself to his loyal following.  

Rundgren has also made a career of being at the forefront of technology and creativity, including designing the first-ever graphics tablet for Apple in 1979; creating the first music video (“Time Heals”) to utilize state-of-the-art compositing of live action and computer graphics in 1981 (which was also the second video ever aired on MTV); creating an album entirely with his own voice in 1985 (appropriately titled A Cappella); recording the album 2nd Wind at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco in front of a live audience; offering the first commercial music downloads in 1992; re-inventing himself as “TR-I” (Todd Rundgren Interactive) in 1993; founding PatroNet, the first online direct artist subscription service in 1998; and producing the first full-length concert shot with multiple Virtual Reality 360º cameras in 2016.  

At 72 years-old, Todd Rundgren doesn’t appear to be slowing down, having released dozens of albums of his own and with his band, Utopia, as well as a bevy of album productions for other artists.  As mentioned earlier, he has yet another tour planned for later in the year, as well as a forthcoming new album entitled Space Force.  

The Clearly Human Tour begins on February 14th with a show “in” Buffalo.  Rundgren‘s band for the Clearly Human Tour will feature Kasim Sulton (Bass), Prairie Prince (Drums), Eliot Lewis (Keys), Gil Assayas (Synth), Bruce McDaniel (Guitar), Bobby Strickland (Sax), Steven Stanley (Trombone), plus the erstwhile “Global Girls”: Michele Rundgren, Grace Yoo, and Ashlé Worrick (Background Vocals).

www.todd-rundgren.com

Review: Jimmy Buffett revisits his catalog

By Brent Thompson

You rarely use the words “Jimmy Buffett” and “deep cuts” in the same phrase, but it’s 2020 so all bets are off anyway. During the COVID hiatus, the Sultan of Sand asked his fans to submit lesser-known songs from his catalog that they wanted to hear and the response was overwhelming. The result is the 15-track Songs You Don’t Know By Heart [Mailboat Records], a play on his appropriately-titled, greatest hits album Songs You Know By Heart. Produced by Coral Reefer Mac McAnally – along with the help of Peter Mayer and Eric Darken – the collection finds Buffett re-creating songs that have stood the test of time even if they missed the Top 40. Tracks such as “Twelve Volt Man,” “Tin Cup Chalice,” “Little Miss Magic” and “The Captain and the Kid” are given a fresh coat of paint while maintaining their original integrity. A series of videos – produced by Buffett’s daughter, Delaney – accompanies the project for those seeking the full experience. If you’re not already a Buffett fan, this album likely won’t sway you to the land of margaritas, palm trees and Hawaiian shirts. But those in the fold will find Songs You Don’t Know By Heart to be a treasure trove of well-worn material.

Review: Eagles fly back to the L.A. nest for memorable three-night stand

By Brent Thompson

If you’re already soured on the fact that Deacon Frey and Vince Gill are in the current incarnation of The Eagles, you can stop reading at this point. But if you want a recent glimpse of a legendary band still doing its thing – and doing it well – then Live From The Forum MMXVIII [Rhino Records] is for you. Though all of these songs can be found on many other releases and compilations, the current lineup puts a fresh energy into the band’s well-worn catalog. The monster hits are all here of course – including “Hotel California,” “Take It Easy,” “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Desperado” – but so are album tracks such as “Ol’ 55” and “Those Shoes.” Solo material can be found here as well, including Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer,” Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” and Gill’s “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” Culled from a three-night L.A. stand in September 2018, a blu-ray edition accompanies the double-disc set.

Review: Terry Ohms returns

By Brent Thompson

Terry Ohms – a.k.a. Wes McDonald – has been a fixture on the Southeastern music scene for over two decades. In addition to recording under his alter ego of Terry Ohms, McDonald has been a member of Vulture Whale and The Ohms and currently plays with People Years. Smooth Sailing Forever [Cornelius Chapel Records] is Ohms’ eighth album and second release of 2020. McDonald engineered, produced and played all of the instruments on this 10-track collection, so the sound and creative vision are exclusively his own. Stylistically, the songs shift from Americana (“Sadness”), ’80s-era sounds recalling The Cure (“Do You Feel That”) and even some numbers with a dance vibe (“Gentleman Caller,” “Action Room”). But while genre-bending is a facet of Smooth Sailing Forever, Ohms provides a cohesive sonic stamp over the course of the album. In listening to this material, you can’t discern if these songs were recorded in 2020 or 1985 and that’s a good thing.

“I’ve written this song”: A conversation with Chris Knight

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Chris Knight is a living inspiration for anyone who thinks they have missed their chance at a career in music. The 60-year-old singer/songwriter may have joined the party later than most, but he’s made up for lost time in a recording career that spans more than 20 years. After earning a degree from Western Kentucky University, Knight spent several years in the mining industry before inking his first record deal in his late thirties. Since then, his raw and honest musical style has garnered the praise of listeners and critics alike. In addition to his own releases, Knight has seen his songs recorded by Randy Travis and John Anderson among others. In 2019, Knight released Almost Daylight [Drifter’s Church Records], an 11-track collection that features John Prine on a version of Prine’s “Mexican Home.” On Friday, October 30, Knight will perform at Zydeco. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his Kentucky home.

Birmingham Stages: Chris, thanks for your time. What a year…

Knight: I’ve only had two live shows since March 15th.

Birmingham Stages: John Prine’s music was an early influence on you and the two of you eventually collaborated. If you will, talk about your relationship and his involvement on Almost Daylight.

Knight: He was on the Little Victories album – he sang a verse and chorus on the title track. I’d run into him every now and then at the airport and he came down to the studio. We hung out for a while – it was really good. I had been around him before – I had opened a couple of shows for him around 2007 or 2008. His bass player, Dave Jacques, used to play with me back in the late nineties. I recorded [Prine song] “Mexican Home” and [producer] Ray [Kennedy] mentioned getting John in there, but I wasn’t able to be in the studio and I heard he liked what we did with it. I was on the road at the only time he could come in and do it, so I missed him that time. Every now and then a singer/songwriter passes away and it affects you more than others.

Birmingham Stages: What have you been doing to stay busy during the shutdown of the past few months?

Knight: I’m just living. I’ve got a good bit of property and I’ve got plenty to do. I’ve got two kids still living at home and they’re enjoying two-day-a-week, in-person school [laughs]. My son had it all planned out – he duck hunts when he’s not in school. We’ve been doing some fishing and a little hunting.

Birmingham Stages: Have you written any songs during the downtime?

Knight: No. I’ve written a couple of things, but nothing’s really hit me to inspire me to write a song. My last show was Sunday, March 15 and they were shutting Texas down. I went ahead and did the show. I came back home the next day and I stopped at Wal-Mart and a guy was walking through there and he said, “You’d think a country songwriter would write a song about this stuff,” and I said, “I’ve written this song five or six times.” If you go back and listen to my catalog, you know what I mean – [references songs] “You Can’t Trust No One” and “In The Meantime.”

Birmingham Stages: Even though Almost Daylight is over a year old, you never really got a fair chance to tour in support of it. Are you ready to resume touring?

Knight: Oh, yeah. I’m ready to get back to normal. I just have these two shows in late October and we are working from the end of January – I’ve got a five-show run in Texas in late January and it just moves on from there.

Birmingham Stages: How did the material on Almost Daylight take shape? Were these older songs, newer songs or a combination of both?

Knight: There are a few newer songs and there were a few I dug out and dusted off, changed some melodies, changed keys and rewrote a little bit. “William Callahan” was a song I wrote with Tim Krekel – he was a friend of mine and we wrote quite a few songs together and he passed away a few years ago. I got to thinking about that song – I always liked it, but there was always something that didn’t sit well with me about it. I listened to it again and I completely changed the melody and the chord progression and took a few things out and got it where I wanted it. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. “Almost Daylight” is a song I wrote awhile back with Christy Sutherland. I always liked that song, too, but there was one line in it that bugged me and I couldn’t figure out how to play it without fingerpicking it. So, I started messing with it again and I changed a couple of lines and got it where I wanted it.

Birmingham Stages: On the upcoming run of shows, how many pieces will you have on stage?

Knight: It’ll just be me and my guitar player – they will both be acoustic shows. I’m doing acoustic shows until April.

Chris Knight will perform at Zydeco on Friday, October 30. Showtime is 8 p.m. with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $30 (limited reserved) and $25 (general admission) and can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com.

Drive-By Truckers drop surprise new album

By Brent Thompson

On Friday, October 2, Drive-By Truckers will release The New OK [ATO Records], the band’s second 2020 release and its 13th overall studio album. The album’s title is taken from the phrase, “I’m OK – the new OK,” a phrase vocalist/guitarist Patterson Hood found himself repeating throughout 2020. In a year that found the Truckers’ touring plans derailed by COVID – while combating anger and depression over the country’s well-documented turmoil – Hood and company have turned these raw emotions into nine songs. Produced by David Barbe (DBT, Amy Ray, k.d. lang), The New OK was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. In addition to a large dose of Hood compositions, guitarist/vocalist Mike Cooley contributes the song “Sarah’s Flame” and bassist Matt Patton shines on a cover of The Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” A horn section rounds out the band’s sound on two tracks, “Sea Island Lonely” and “Tough To Let Go.” In a challenging year for all of us, this surprise release is a helpful cure for the 2020 blues.

Zooming through Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp: My Night with Liberty DeVitto

By Beau Jones

Two things I never saw myself doing:
1. Attending one of those rock music fantasy weekends where mostly middle-aged guys
and gals relive their glory days by jamming with the legends of yesteryear.
2. Listening to a copious amount of Billy Joel tunes in one sitting.
I swore off the Piano Man’s entire catalog after hearing his tenured and faithful sideman
tell the most heart-wrenching tale of betrayal this side of Bill Shakespeare’s version of
“You scratch my back and I’ll stab yours”. I figured it was safe to assume I’d never again
be in a New York State of Mind.

But now, mere days into my fifties, both of the above items have been scratched off a bucket
list I never knew existed – and in one fell swoop.
On a night when I would have otherwise watched my umpteenth Atlanta Braves game, I was
instead asked by a fellow writer to cover a Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp Master Class featuring
Liberty DeVitto, the long-time Billy Joel drummer and session timekeeper for the likes of Carly
Simon, Stevie Nicks, and Paul McCartney. Given the state of the world, this event would be
conducted via Zoom, so no need to pack my drumsticks, blue jean jacket and bandana and head
off to some school of rock for big boys and girls. Instead, I spent a couple of hours wearing
earbuds doing homework for my first ever writing assignment. And as I navigated the vast Billy
Joel hit parade with a more critical and mature ear than I had from ages 7-16, I realized the
truly versatile, musical, and stylistically-diverse nature of Liberty DeVitto’s drumming.
According to the email I received from the event, each of the handful of participants in the one-
hour online drumming workshop was promised at least one question, so I came up with a query
designed to get the studio vet talking about how he came up with so many nifty beats for songs
that ran the stylistic gamut from raucous and hard-hitting (“Say Goodbye To Hollywood” and
“Pressure”) to upbeat and swinging (“You’re Only Human”) to those which featured tastefully
textured and understated percussive parts (“Just The Way You Are”).

And so the Zoom screen appeared, and already sitting behind his kit visibly eager to take on our
group of adoring rock fans and/or drummers, was the man I had seen so many times perched
on the riser behind the Long Island legend. The man who enthusiastically anchored arguably
one of the best backing bands in rock history: Mr. Liberty DeVitto. There he was in my drum
room…sort of.

As a bonus, the event’s unofficial host was Billy Amendola, Editor-At-Large for Modern
Drummer magazine, founding member of ‘70s disco group, Mantus, and the session man
responsible for the drum tracks on some of Debbie Gibson’s biggest smashes.
Before I had the chance to click the “raise hand” button, Mr. DeVitto was already answering my
unasked question as he shared stories about his legendary experiences working with famed
producer Phil Ramone. It was in those fateful recording sessions that the man behind the
control room glass would go back and forth with Mr. Joel’s band members allowing them to
workshop different ideas for what DeVitto called “pieces of songs” that were brought into the
studio. The drummer then discussed experimenting with various feels for a song and described
the process during which ideas would ultimately become a shuffle, or have a Latin beat, or be
built on a traditional two-four rock chassis. He made the point that this means to an end
differed drastically from the production style of a standard Nashville hit factory. In that neck of
the woods, musicians are typically told exactly what to play and precisely how to play it. For the
most part, he established that Music City producers hire musicians to record songs as
instructed whereas Devitto and his fellow Joel sidemen were fortunately paid to first help build
songs from the ground up – and then lay them down on tape.
Since my question had been properly addressed, I warmed up to the online group dynamic
secure in the knowledge that my planned topic of discussion was the first bullet point our
online mentor felt compelled to share with our intimate group of fewer than ten pupils. But I
needed to dig a little deeper.
When I was finally called on by the group’s moderator, I felt the “why” of Liberty’s drumming
approach had already been answered. The featured guest had pointed out that Billy Joel wrote
tunes that covered so many different styles, and that as his drummer, he was encouraged to
contribute his take on how each track should pulsate. But I still needed to know about the how.
How was Liberty DeVitto, a self-taught drummer who eschewed formal lessons from day one so
able to masterfully sculpt an assortment of spot-on rhythms for countless hits? How was he
able to be a veritable Swiss-army knife for Joel’s production team and effortlessly add just the
right flavor of drumming to so many different styles of songs? From whence did all that
inspiration and talent come?
His answer could have come off as predictable if not for the passion with which he expounded
on it. For the next several minutes, DeVitto humbly explained away any sort of mastery of
technique stating: “I’m not a drummer – I just play one on stage”, and that his experience
covering myriad genres in wedding bands provided a solid foundation for eventually being able
to comfortably insert numerous styles of drumming into the record-making process. Then he
went back further. Back to when he was a kid in Brooklyn wanting to master the traps without
actually suffering through so much rudimental learning. Like nearly every drummer of his
vintage, the desire was ignited after seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. DeVitto
explained that he learned how to play the drums by simply listening to the lyrics of songs. Not

the drum parts nor the bass lines or guitar riffs. The words. Coincidentally, he attributed Ringo
Starr’s method to the same madness.
It was this holistic song-based approach that prepared him to most aptly suggest the feel for
countless Billy Joel songs – but only after the prolific hitmaker discussed his lyrics with his
drummer. Moreover, Liberty said he still learns more about music from friends who aren’t
musicians than those who are – a statement a less-grounded professional would never dare
admit. And when the names of drummers like Stewart Copeland (The Police) and Alan White
(Yes) were tossed about in our group discussion, it wasn’t us wannabe-rocker attendees whose
pulses quickened, it was Liberty’s. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and Devitto proudly
owned up to the saying: “Good drummers borrow and great drummers steal.” After all these
years, Liberty Devitto is, at his core, one of the world’s biggest fans of multiple genres of music
and of those who made it come to life. Throughout the Zoom session, his unbridled enthusiasm
was both contagious and inspirational.
DeVitto, who turned 70 last month, is a consummate journeyman who continues to make music
and has recently released his autobiography, Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness,
with a foreword written by none other than his former boss and would-be Brutus, Billy Joel. The
Rock and Roll gods have obviously smiled and the two have reconciled, an achievement that’s
not surprising after witnessing the humility and gracious appreciation Liberty showed us, his
apprentices for the evening whom he’d just met. His enthusiasm for drumming and music is
matched only by his warm, amicable personality. In fact, after viewing the segment of the
rockumentary film Hired Gun, in which Liberty explains how the suddenly-bankrupt Joel
abruptly fired him in order to staff his band with less-expensive players, I swore I’d never listen
to another song by the former Mr. Christie Brinkley as long as I lived. Fortunately, DeVitto
wears his earnestness on his sleeve like so many patches on the satin tour jackets of days gone
by. After assimilating his accounts of how he helped create the very songs I had perhaps
unjustly sworn off, I decided to retract my ban on all things Joel because that catalog has
DeVitto’s thumbprint all over it. Truth be told, before I ever logged on to my computer, I had
already ventured down 52 nd Street, checked out some Glass Houses, and pulled back The Nylon
Curtain in order to properly prepare for what I hoped wouldn’t be my last writing
assignment…nor my last Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp Master Class with a gentleman such as the
great Liberty DeVitto.

Beau Jones is a seasoned drummer and freelance music writer. For more information on
Rock’n’Roll Fantasy Camp, visit www.rockcamp.com.