You’d think that with all the stuff going on in his life over the past year — first rebranding, then undertaking a huge expansion of Whole Music, bringing the former Pine Island Music Resource to the historic Carriage Mill Building in downtown Amesbury, and launching an ambitious artist development series, partnering with former WBOS program director Dana Marshall.... You'd think that E.J. Ouellette, well, that he's got a screw loose or something. And he's not necessarily going to argue the point. "I ought to have my head examined,” says Ouellette, the frontman for Crazy Maggy and a fixture on the North Shore music scene for decades, who, aside from his preoccupation with work that borders on obsession, seems to be a regular guy. But, leaving stubborn mental health issues to the side, for now, anyhow — there are trained professionals for that — the question becomes, is all work getting in the way of the "real" work, the personal vision, the creative stuff? And the answer is, sort of ... well, not really.
It's like how a painter's house is always the last one on the block to get a fresh coat. Ouellette/Crazy Maggy projects have tended to get lost in the musical shuffle as the business/students take precedence. "It's my job," the Byfield resident says. "It supports my habit." The music habit, of course. Yeah, but it's been five years since Maggy served up “Rock the Bow 5.0,” the first, and so far only, musical helping of what Ouellette calls the "rad/trad" sound — a combustible, genre-jumping mix of the new and old worlds, blending ancient melodies and modern dance grooves. But that is starting to change. Maggy will release a new single, "In the Garden," in the next couple of weeks, and has bumped up its performance schedule, which will bring Maggy to the Arakelian Theater as part of the Firehouse's 10-for-20 series, which celebrates the Market Square venue's 20th anniversary.
But, while the Firehouse spotlight seems, at first blush, to be squarely on Maggy, it's a bit more complicated than that. The real star of the concert is something more ineffable: the idea of community. Maggy has always been a changing community of musicians for the decade it’s been around. The shuffling of players, Ouellette says, "is refreshing. It's invigorating. It brings a new energy to the band." These days the rhythm section — "the heartbeat," as Ouellette puts it — remains fairly constant: drummer Peter Whitehead, bassist Michael Gruen and saxophonist Steve Baker. For the Firehouse show, Ouellette adds Scott Billington, the Grammy-nominated A&R man for Rounder Records, on harmonica. Jon Ross, probably best known locally for his work with the rootsy Roll & Tumble, but also plays with Duke Robbilard and Commander Cod, plays guitar. "We grab him whenever he's available," says Ouellette. The show will also feature Orville Giddings, the Ipswich guitarist who has fronted the Orville Gidding Band for 15 years. "I've known him forever," Ouellette says. "He's a class act." The concert also puts the spotlight on some of the new artists emerging from the Whole Music stable, including Forrest Finn, Frankie Weeks and Daniel Alvarez de Toledo.
Maggy will play two 45-minute sets at the Firehouse. Which Ouellette describes as "a joke,” barely enough time to warm up to the mountain of material the band has ready to go at a moment's notice. "It’s a bit of a dilemma," he says. "There's a few tunes we always do, old Celtic fiddle tunes, that kind of thing, until we get balanced on stage, unitl we find our levels.”
Yeah, okay, but what will you play, since time is at a premium?
"We haven’t decided yet," says Ouellette.
Ummmmm, we trying to pin you down a little bit, EJ?
Okay, they'll play “In the Garden,” the recently recorded, radio-friendly and almost poppy new single. They'll play "No More Wastin’ Time," a new tune Ouellette describes as a "boomer anthem." They'll also do "Mando Jam," an instrumental that puts the focus on the mandolin, which Ouellette has played a lot longer than the fiddle, for which the multi-instrumentalist is best known these day, but has gotten shoved aside for the fiddle — a far more demanding mistress.
And after that?
The "usual" Maggy mix: Beautiful laments on fiddle and scorching, guitar-driven rockers. Pop, reggae. Jazz, even. Old Celtic and Appalachian tunes.
Fact is, you never know what they're going to throw at you.
"Whatever strikes the mood," says Ouellette. "We're not a one -trick pony. Our audiences have come to expect the unexpected."
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: EJ Ouellette and Crazy Maggy play at 8 p.m. April 9 at the Firehouse. The concert will feature special guest Orville Giddings and musicians from the Whole Music stable, including Forrest Finn, Frankie Weeks and Daniel Alvarez de Toledo. The performance is part of the Firehouse’s 10-for-20 Music Series, celebrating the Market Square venue’s 20th anniversary. Tickets are $16, or $14 for members of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities, the non-profit organization that manages the Firehouse. For more information, call 978.462.7336 or log onto the Firehouse web.