Sunday, January 30, 2011

The 'X' Factor: Novax, Sax and Lux

Interesting band, Lux. Crazy instrumentation: Drums. Two saxes, an alto and tenor. Guitar, but no bass. The bass isn’t needed because the guitar is no ordinary guitar. It’s a Novax: Eight strings, three bass, five standard, everything but the low E, an instrument that allows the guitarist to double. And the guitarist? Studied with Stacey Pedrick, founding member of The Fools. Still considers these knuckleheads of North Shore rock one of his all-time favorite bands. A guy who studied classical before switching to jazz performance, a guy with the nerve to submit a straight arrangement of Verdi’s “Requiem,” more or less, without a nod or wink toward improvisation. And got away with it. A guy who, when he returned home, started a funk band. Yeah, a funk band. We’re talking about Port guitarist Todd Clancy and his band Lux, a name that, perversely, suggests a softer sound, something classical, maybe medieval. But, no, not even close. The quartet, features Amy McGlothin, who, like Clancy, teaches at Salem State University, and PJ and Jared Holaday. Yes, sons of former Fools bassist Joe Holaday, now with Beatlejuice, and Donna Holaday. Yup, the mayor. The band has just released a new CD — “The Left One Alone.” A funny story about the CD title, one that Clancy believes we won’t tell. But, of course, we will. 

But before we get into that, what is the deal with the guitar? It’s a solid-body version of the instrument designed by — and custom made for — guitar wizard Charlie Hunter. With its unusual fanned frets, the Novax doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before. The setup lets the guitarist play bass and guitar simultaneously, splitting the signal, running it through a Motion Sound amp, a more user-friendly version of a Leslie, meaning it’s small and light, and has a top horn and bottom drum that rotate. With eight strings, it has a wider neck, making barre chording a prescription for carpal tunnel or worse, requiring the guitarist to take a different approach to chording — playing two or three notes of a chord, instead of “as much as I can grab,” says the guitarist. 
Clancy, 41, grew up in Ipswich. His family moved to Newburyport in the ‘70s, before the city got hip, and then pushed across the river to Merrimac, which he absolutely hated because there’s nothing, nothing, nothing to do in West Lamesbury, as the kids say today. He studied jazz at New England Conservatory, classical at Nazareth College in 2002 and grabbed a master’s in jazz performance from the University of Denver. By the time he got his master’s he was burned out on jazz. As far as guitarists go, he’s down with Hunter and, say, John Scofield. With bands, he wants more than just the music. He likes the Tubes, the Fools and Zappa. 

He’s played in Loose Change, a long-running North Shore classic rock cover band. He’s played with the Fools — not opened for them, played with them — a couple of times in the past decade. Both concerts were, naturally, a bit off: The first show, New Year’s Eve 2000, he filled in for Rich Bartlett, who was touring with Orr, a band fronted by the Cars’ Ben Orr. It should have been a memorable event: Playing with the band he loved, playing alongside the guy who taught him how to play guitar, on a date that resulted in a live album — “Coors Light Six Pack.” But he was running on empty, delirious from the flu, and doesn’t remember any of it. The second was last November, a date that found the Fools playing a show with Robin Lane, Barrence Whitfield and Danny Klein’s Full House, among others, to benefit music programs. The idea was that everybody would do two songs, and one had to be about Christmas. Now, the band had a Christmas album under its belt, so, no problem, right? But the band had never played, say, “My Dog Died on Christmas Day” or “I Shot Santa in my Underwear” live, so, at the last minute, the band decided to try a parody of “Psycho Chicken,” their breakout hit, changing the lyrics to “Psycho Santa.” Unfortunately, no one was exactly sure what to do with the guitar solo, which mimics a chicken clucking, so the Port guitarist ended up playing a solo that “came out more or less like ‘Jingle Bells.’” They were on stage at 8:20, done by 8:30 and on the highway at 8:45.

Clancy’s been at Salem State University for three years, teaching the history of pop music and leading the SSU Foundation Jazz Ensemble. He formed Lux a little more than two years ago, but there have been significant changes in personnel and sound. In the past, the band has included a hand percussionist and chromatic harmonica. Two years ago, Clancy brought in McGlothlin for the "The Left One Alone" sessions. She plays alto sax with “powerful runs ... create a sound that can be as round and warm as it can be big and fat and funky,” says Clancy. He doubled the sax pleasure by adding Jared Holaday on tenor. The band is rounded out by PJ Holaday, Jared’s younger brother, on drums.

The album was essentially recorded live after three formal rehearsals at Wonka Sound in Lowell, the band kicking out 11 songs in one day, mostly in just one or two takes. “We were ready,” says Clancy. “It was just a matter of catching the energy.” The title comes, for the record, from mad conversations he’s had with “a female friend of mine,” he says. “We go back and forth without mercy. Usually we just call each other fat. Anyway, when I said one of her breasts weighs more than I do, she said ‘puh-leez, you've written 10 songs about the left one alone’ ... probably too risque for your blog, right?” Um, sorry? 

Aside from the sonic possibilities the Novax provides, this oddball ax provides an opening. It makes people look — especially when they hear that warm, Hammond-ish sound and see no organ anywhere. “It’s a novel effect for maybe two songs,” he says. “After that, you better do something. It’s a guitar, it’s a bass, but it can’t be both. It’s got to be its own thing. You have to make it your own.” And, for the record, Clancy hates the term “funk” to describe the Lux sound, saying it’s closer to acid jazz vibe. “Whatever,” he says. “It will definitely get you off your ass and dancing.“

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Lux will play in Music and Art, a live interactive performance featuring painters and musicians, from 4 to 8 p.m. Feb. 12 at Alan Bull Studios, 18 Graf Road, Newburyport. It’s free. The new Lux album is available at gigs and all your usual online outlets.


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