Sunday, January 27, 2019

Tom Ashton, Iridesense, This Island Earth

About a week and a half ago, my wife forwarded me an invitation she'd received from Tara Eberle of Iridesense, to a 25th Anniversary Show for the band This Island Earth at the Revolution Music Hall in Amityville. Back in the day, TIE used to play often with Iridesense and Early Edison as part of a collective called Pop Conspiracy Productions, so I wondered if all of those bands would be playing together again for this show. Sure enough, when I went up on the Revolution website, Tom Ashton of Early Edison and Iridesense were opening the show for This Island Earth. We forwarded the invite to some friends, and put the night on our calendar.

Now regular readers of this blog know that I have a special love for a style of music I like to call alternapop - a style of rock music that features alternative rock leanings (often with '80s new-wave roots), and strong pop hooks. Rick Eberle of Iridesense has another term for this kind of music - pop-core. And together with some like-minded musical friends, he tried his best to storm the walls of the music industry back in the late 1990s-early 2000s.

One of the things that used to happen (and maybe still does) on Long Island during that time period was that a promoter would get a certain date for a club, and book four or so bands together to make a night of music. Sometimes the promoter tried to think about what bands would go together naturally. But as often as not, they'd just throw any four bands on a bill, and expect the bands to each promote their set. Unfortunately, what would happen is that a band would show up and play in front of their friends and fans. They might be a an alt-rock band. They'd finish their set, and the next band would set up. Maybe they'd be a metal band. And as soon as the second band played their first three chords, all of the first band's friends and fans who had remained in the building would immediately run for the doors. So bands were playing in front of the same crowd all the time, instead of being exposed to new audiences who might enjoy their sound.

The concept behind PCP was simple, but brilliant. Three hard-working and well-respected Long Island pop-core bands formed a business cooperative. They would put together shows where they'd invite a fourth, similar-style band to play with them. (I remember the band Halfmanwonder playing several times as the fourth band, to particularly good effect). They'd book a large club (often it was Mulcahys in Wantagh), and each band would not only promote the hell of it, but would encourage their friends and fans to hang out for the full night and hear some other bands they'd be likely to enjoy. This had the benefit of cutting out the middle-man promoter who sucked up a good portion of the money, so the bands could invest that money back into their music business. But more importantly, it created kind of a buzz that these original music bands could fill a club like Mulcahys on a regular basis.

At the time, there were a number of Long Island emo bands that had started to make it on the national scene. The biggest of these were probably Taking Back Sunday and Brand New, but bands like Bayside, Straylight Run and The Sleeping, among others, also broke nationally. And when a Long Island alternapop band, Nine Days, also broke nationally, it seemed like they might just be the first of many from that genre to also make it over the wall to national fame.

Of course, it didn't work out that way. While each of the three PCP bands got various nibbles from the music industry, none of them actually got signed to a national label. And Nine Days, whose 2000 The Madding Crowd album did make a dent nationally, wound up getting so screwed by the record industry that the next album that they recorded still has never been officially released (although you can find downloads of it online).

Eventually, after years of knocking on the door only to be disappointed, This Island Earth and Early Edison broke up. Iridesense has stayed together over the years, and they still play five or six shows a year and make new music. But these days, I'm sure they do it more as a project of love than out of any belief that they're going to break it big nationally in the music scene of the 2010s. (And it probably hasn't hurt their longevity that they're essentially something of a family band -- Rick and Tara are brother and sister, and Rich the drummer is Tara's husband, so three quarters of the band are going to be kind of a unit anyway. Rob the guitarist is the only one not related by blood or marriage. And after all these years together, I'm sure that he feels that he might as well be.)

Denise and I saw Iridesense as recently as two years ago, opening (kind of) for The B-52s and Mother Feather. But it's been awhile since we saw any vestiges of Early Edison, and This Island Earth hasn't played together for fifteen years. So we were pretty psyched to get out for the night and catch these three excellent acts once again.

We arrived at the club at a few minutes before 8PM. We quickly staked out some seats in this little area with a bench and a few tables facing the stage that I had scoped out over the summer, when I'd seen Tigers Jaw at this same club. The area sometimes serves as a VIP area when there are national bands on the bill (which is why I was sitting all the way back in the Ozzy Room for Tigers Jaw). However, I was pretty sure the club would let us sit in this section tonight, and when I checked with the bartender, I discovered I was right.

When I went to the bar to get some drinks and put in a food order, I saw several of the members of Iridesense mulling about nearby, so I went over to say hello. Rick told me that a number of old-time scene people were planning on coming out for the show, including Mike Ferrari of Aural Fix and Roy Abrams of The Island Zone. Both had worked hard over the years to put Long Island music on the map, and both had been especially supportive of the PCP project.

After I returned to my table, Denise and I waved to Peter McCulloch of TIE, who did a take when he saw us. He and wife dropped over to say hello and catch up a little. They're living somewhere in New Jersey these days.

Not too long after 8PM, Tom Ashton took the stage. The first time I saw Tom and Early Edison play was in the final round of the 1995 (I think) Long Island Music Festival. They had played a blazing show that night, and I'd been sure that either they or Reckless Abandon were going to be crowned the winners of the night. As it turned out, EE came in second, and Reckless Abandon finished out of the top four (This Island Earth and my old friends The Basals came in 3rd and 4th, although I forget in what order.) I'm blanking on the name of the band that won right now -- no disrespect to the band, my old brain just doesn't work like it used to -- but I remember being so outraged that Reckless had been shut out that I'd penned an angry letter to poor John Blenn at Good Times Magazine, who was running the fest. Of course, I eventually wound up writing for Good Times, and was involved with the festival myself for most of the years of its existence after that. (Whoa, the synapses just fired! It was the country rock band Quickdraw who won the festival, and drew my ire that night. Sorry about that, guys! In retrospect, you were a good band too. I just hadn't expanded my taste yet to the extent that I learned to once the Long Island Music Coalition came along.)

Anyway, tonight, Tom Ashton was playing as part of a duo, although unfortunately, I didn't catch the name of the musician who was supporting him. I didn't get to focus on his set as much as I'd have liked, as I was wondering around the room for part of it, saying hello to people and grabbing our friend Rich the Drummer, who had just arrived, and bringing him back to our section. Tom played a relatively short set -- maybe half an hour. I didn't recognize all of the songs, although I remember there was an early Beatles cover in there. (But I'm blanking on which one, as that was right when I was over at the bar finding Rich). I did hear a couple of my favorite Early Edison songs, though, including the excellent "Alice" (which I remember Roy Abrams used to play regularly on his Island Zone show) from EE's self-titled debut album, and "Burn the Boats" from an EP they'd put out that had also contained their popular Christmas specialty song "Waiting for George Bailey". It was great to see Ashton play again, although I was sorry that the full band hadn't gotten back together for the show.

Next up was Iridesense. These guys have always been one of my favorite local bands. I first saw them at The Raven, an "underground" club run out of a warehouse in Lindenhurst, and I loved them from that first night. Eventually, I even became their first record company, putting out a small number of copies of their debut album Cool Dream Tomorrow, along with Try This by Denise and Rich's old band The Slant, and Soundings and Fathoms by John DiBartolo (of Fathom)'s first band, Blue Abyss. I've always regretted that I wasn't able to keep Rock Diva Records going -- I'd love to still be putting out albums today.

Iridesense has always prided itself on writing catchy, accessible pop-rock songs, and on the strong vocal harmonies of the sister-brother team of Tara and Rick Eberle, and those two elements were once again on display at tonight's show. The last time I'd seen them, they had done a set comprising a lot of their older songs that I knew from back in the day. Tonight, they concentrated on a lot of newer material -- the only two songs I was really familiar with were "Right Next to You", and their popular set-closer "Holiday". But their whole set sounded terrific, and a couple of the newer songs that jumped out at me were "Life Isn't Easy", "Take Some Action" (which apparently is so new that this was only the second time they've performed it), and "Got It Good". Sadly, this was another case of age starting to catch up with me -- as they played "Holiday", I sang along and bopped my head, and when the song was over, I discovered that the head-bopping had actually made me a little dizzy -- there were some inner-ear issues going on there. Pretty sad. (Denise had a good chuckle when I told her that.) But in any event, it was terrific to see Iridesense again, particularly in such good form.

Last up was the amazing This Island Earth. Now the first time Denise and I saw This Island Earth was in an earlier round of that same Long Island Music Festival, at The Crocodile Club in Bayside, Queens. (Which was convenient, since we were still living in Flushing at the time.) We had gone there to support a friend's band, the fine LI reggae unit Inity. However, we were both taken with This Island Earth's set, so much so that Denise switched her festival vote and voted for TIE instead of Inity. (It was clear that Inity didn't have anywhere near a large enough crowd there to place in the top two that night, though, so it wasn't as big a betrayal as it might sound like.) Patrick of TIE somehow saw that Denise had voted for them, and started talking with us, and we became friends after that. And TIE and Reckless Abandon won the night, and the right to move on to the LIMF finals.

On this night, Peter, Patrick, Dean and Chip were playing with their original drummer Wayne (who had come up from his current home in North Carolina for the show). And for a band that hasn't performed together in 15 years, they sounded so much better than they had any right to. They did most of their old favorites, including "All for Love", "Up and Down", "Christina's World", "Punch Clock Man" (another song that got regular airplay on The Island Zone show) and "Undertow". The highlight of the night, however, had to be "Hero (I Don't Wanna Be)" from their superb 2002 Welcome to the Merry-Go-Round album. Finally, manly chest-hair abounded, as they closed their set with their entertaining cover of Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual".

As we left Revolution, a mob of twenty-somethings lined up to enter for what I guess was club night and canned music, but they had missed the best part of the evening. For a couple of hours, all of us were twenty years younger, enjoying some of the best alternative pop music there ever was. So, many thanks to Tom Ashton, Iridesense and This Island Earth for making us all feel young (well, young-er, anyway!), and for transporting us back in time for a night, to a time of great musical hope and anticipation. I wish all you guys had gotten famous. You deserved it.