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The return of Josh Brooks

josh brooks

By Alan Lewis | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted January 19, 2007

Not long ago, a folksier Josh Brooks was thought by many to be one of Vermont’s best songwriters.

“I’m thrilled to be playing for people again. People I’ve never met or musicians I’ve never heard before,” says singer-songwriter Brooks. “I’m just glad to be back.”

An exclamation mark belongs in there somewhere. Additional punctuation can be found on The White House Sessions, Brooks’ latest release. And, his first release in several years.

“The last song on Sessions — ‘Shadow Where I Stand’ — is kind of an encapsulation of the transition I was going through ... around the time Sessions was recorded,” said Brooks. “I was a husband, father, teacher, and part-time songwriter, not always in that order. The Songwriter was playing a lot of bar gigs to help out the other three guys, and it was eating my soul, artistically.

“So I was playing all these bar gigs, feeling further and further away from my goal of playing for folks who wanted to hear new music, and then we bought a house, our second daughter was coming along, and it just didn’t make sense to keep doing what I was doing. I kind of shut down, backed out of some shows, stopped writing entirely. ... I ended up changing jobs, starting grad school, and pretty much trying to pretend I was done with music.

“Then in the fall of 2006,” he recalled, “I started taking this class on narrative writing and realized that all the things I was learning I already knew as a songwriter. When Patrick Fitzsimmons e-mailed me in October to ask if I could fill in for him on a gig in Keene [NH], I figured it was time to get back in business. Now I’m a little more mature — depending on who you ask — and a lot more focused. I learned how to edit, through all of the academic work — something I hadn’t done with my songs before — so I feel like the stuff I’m writing is cleaner.”

So Brooks has gone through some big changes. But even a casual listen to his latest release shows that there is more to his story than dropping out of music for a time. For instance, Brooks’ wife’s grandmother hooked him on country.

“[T]here was sincerity in real country music that I didn’t always hear in some of the other stuff — there was no space between what Merle Haggard was singing and what was in his heart,” said Brooks. “Same with Johnny Cash, even when he was singing something he hadn’t written. I really admired that and have aimed for that kind of sincerity in my writing.”

Brooks’ Sessions was background listening for this reviewer for a week. Compared to his folksy days, the new disc is more a roots-rocker with a notably fuller band sound. But when time came to focus in on the five-song EP, there was that fuller sound alright — no mistake about it — but where was the band? A check of musician credits showed no change at all from Brooks’ folk 2001 debut CD, except foot-tapping was replaced by drumming. Yet the difference in sonics is amazing.

“The biggest shift in my musical life ... was meeting Kent Blackmer,” recalled Brooks. “He was dating my mother-in-law when we met, and it wasn’t long before we figured out that we were both musicians. I knew something good was going on when he pulled out a set of drum sticks and a Pampers box and started playing along with some of my new songs and they sounded like they had wanted to sound from the start.”

A music journalist could ask a heap of artists who it was who inspired big changes in their playing and writing without once getting for an answer, “The guy dating my mother-in-law.”

“Kent had been a regular in the Northampton scene in the 70s and played in Boston and around that area,” explained Brooks, “but when I met him he didn’t have a drum kit and hadn’t played for a few years. We recorded ‘Better Days’ live in the white house in Addison, Vermont, that used to house Big Orange Studios, and our first day recording was the first time he’d sat behind a full kit in eight years. Not that you can tell. He was so solid, and really managed me musically, helped me get into a pocket I hadn’t been in before. ... He just found his space in the songs I had already written, and filled them out.

“I started out playing bass,” he continued, “and that love of the low end of the range had never left my playing. I had tried to incorporate bass lines into my songs before, on ‘Lordy Lordy’ or ‘Ten Black Crows,’ for instance. Now I really had to fill that dual role of rhythm guitar/bass because we didn’t have a bass player. And Kent made it work. He used that kick drum to supplement what I was doing and I think it came together nicely.”

Anything Goes by a Southern writer, Madison Smartt Bell, is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll novels. A key scene in his book is set in Vergennes. Josh Brooks’ account of his original material — his guitar-songs featuring a bass-player’s groove — echoes an important turn of events in Anything Goes.

“What you hear on The White House Sessions is the impact of having that drumming in my unconscious as I wrote, knowing that I needed to fill the space with a strong bass part, knowing that we would have to play with dynamics in a way that other bands maybe didn’t have to, or a solo artist could do just by playing more quietly or loudly.”

“I’m really leaning more towards playing as a duo than solo. I’ll still do both, certainly, but I get a different satisfaction out of playing with Kent. It’s more challenging, keeps me on my toes, makes me really think about what a song is doing, where it’s got to go musically to get its message across. I want my songs to move people and make people move. ... I’m really hoping to take this out on the road more and make it my primary focus. Plus I want people to hear Kent. He’s an incredible musician.”

Catch this duo at Burlington’s Radio Bean and see what you think.

See Josh Brooks live
Who: Josh Brooks and Kent Blackmer
Where: Radio Bean, Burlington
When: Jan. 27, 8-9 p.m.
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