The sun is setting, the red-tailed hawks that hang out in the back yard are likely around somewhere, hidden in the dusk. The rehearsal is supposed to be starting now — about 45 minutes ago, actually, and the bass player is nowhere in sight. Will he show? No one knows. He’s got phone, car and work issues, apparently. A triple threat. Nobody seems too worried about it, they’re all pretty laid back about it — way too laid back. Clearly someone needs to stir the pot, and it looks like it’s gotta be me. Everybody else is too well adjusted. “You know,” I say. “You should fire his ass, if, for no other reason, to get even with him for the despicable way he treated you during the Dink era,” that period being a brief portion of middle school more than a decade and a half ago. Alexander Sandman laughs at the reference. As he probably should, since it’s such a terrible and, well, juvenile name for a band! Then again, right around the same time, Sandman was playing in an equally unfortunately named band, Dying Cat, a short-lived project with a logo showing a bloody cat with crosses for eyes. (“It was about being in a band,” he says, “not about being good — or especially clever.”) It doesn’t matter anyhow, because Benny Zanfagna isn’t biting. He wants to talk about Red Tail Hawk, his latest project, not temporarily wayward bassist Mike Gruen.
But that’s kind of what the Red Tail Hawk's all about, anyhow. Not the real or imagined misadventures of its bassist, but the longstanding relationships, both personal and professional, of the players — relationships that run deep and long. These guys, all pushing 30, at least, now, grew up in Newburyport, they hung out, they played in bands. They went away, they came back and they continue to do what they love to do — play music. "We all studied music formally and independently, toured with national and semi-national acts and came home,” says Zanfagna.
He and Sandman played with Endway, a Boston-based punk-tinged emo band, during separate periods. Zanfagna co-wrote songs on "Action," the band’s second album, and toured with them for about a year. And Sandman filled in as bassist and co-writer on "Running Man,” their third release. He also played for Rideaway, a straight-ahead alt-rock outfit, and had a deal with Wind Up Records, one of the largest indie labels in the country — until 2009, when the singer decided he didn’t want to be in a band any more. The deal went south. Sandman came home and reconnected with Zanfagna, who had been playing in a duo with his father and had released an EP called "Father & Son Playing for Small Change,” another disc with a strange brew of influences — Americana realized through a haze of reggae and jazz. That band also featured Gruen, who played in EJ Ouellette’s rad-trad Crazy Maggy, teaches in Ouellette's Whole Music — and in-demand session player. That project is on the back burner for now, as Doc Zig, as Zanfagna’s father goes by, deals with some health issues. His son wanted to carry on and had been writing new material.
Drummer Brett Bashaw, who had been touring nationally with pianist Rob Gonzalez — and continues to perform with Port guitarist Josh Pritchard’s Ruin/Renewal — was initially brought in to play the sessions for the new album, but was locked into RTH when it became clear that the project had legs. He had never been in any bands with the others, but “aways knew that we would play together someday."
The name comes from the species more properly known as red tailed hawks, a name that had already been scooped by someone else. There are three of them — actual red tailed hawks, that is — living around Zanfagna’s home, in the shadow of Newburyport High School, presumably keeping an eagle eye out for Gruen. The band has just put the finishing touches on its eponymous three-song EP, which the band will “probably” have on the day of the show. “At least I hope we do,” says Sandman, (and, yes, he is related to the late, great Mark Sandman, frontman for Morphine).
The songs could not be more different from each other. “Bilderberg,” for example, opens with a big-ass, funky bass line, which, if you’re not familiar with the reference of the title — an organization with new-world-order ambitions, hoping to influence politics, banking, business, the military and the media — might just push you out onto the dance floor. Until the listener — or dancer — gets to the lyrics, like “Were you present in 1954/ When they started planning third World War/ My blood runs through red white and blue/ A bloodless revolution must ensue.”) Strident stuff indeed. The sound is dense, layered and has an almost aggressive vibe.
“I Do,” on the other hand, conjures up an image of a late night in a smoky jazz club and has a vintage soul feel, as Zanfagna pours out his heart without caring what anyone else thinks. “Tree” has a folkie, singer-songwriter feel to it, musically, and an unblinking self-assessment, lyrically.
All of this is just plain wrong, as everyone in the biz will tell you: It’s best to remain focused and, well, whatever you’ve always been, you should always remain. Find something you do well and stick with it. You don’t want to confuse your listeners, so fickle and so slow, which is not the game plan for Red Tail Hawk. “The music is a way for me to express the changes in me and in my life,” says Zanfagna. “I want to spark a civic discourse. The music is inspired by nature, politics and art … I don’t really care if we sound more cohesive.”
You can listen to the music online, or download it for whatever you think is fair, or take it for free, from the Red Tail Hawk bandcamp page. Doesn’t matter to the band, especially. “Either way,” says Zanfagna. “We want our music to be discovered and shared.”
And if you see the bass player wandering around somewhere, let us know.
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Red Tail Hawk performs at 8 p.m. March 12 at the Firehouse as part of its “10 for 20” music series. Tickets are $16, or $14 for members of the Society for the Developent of the Arts and Humanities, the nonprofit organization that manages the venue. For more information, call 978.462.7336 or log onto firehouse.org. The band photo is courtesy of Lydia See.