Beginning in 1966, The Kinks released a series of albums that rank among the finest—and, at the time, most under-appreciated—works in pop music. Returning to the Iron Horse on Sunday, January 16th at 7PM, following last summer’s sold-out performance and a headlining gig at B.B. King's in New York City, the 10-piece Muswell Hillbillies—the area’s most dedicated followers of Davies—attempt to redress the balance with “Kronikles,” a cross-section of cuts covering classic collections like Something Else (“David Watts”), The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (“Big Sky”), Arthur (“Shangri-La”) and others, once again with backing from the all-teen Hillbilly Horns five-piece ensemble.
Last June, Steve Pfarrer of the Daily Hampshire Gazette ran a story previewing the first show, excerpted here:
The take was pretty good, though there was some confusion about the singing: Was one of the backup singers supposed to join the lead singer's vocal, or add harmony? And what about the other two - were their voices too strong?
"You need to back off the mic a bit, make it a little softer," Dave Simons said to his wife, Paula, and Emily Eagan, who had added a series of high "oohs" and "sha-la-las" to his lead. "You should be ethereal ... maybe we could try some reverb, too."
Simons, perched on a stool cradling an acoustic guitar, turned to Nate Aldrich, who'd also been adding backup vocals: "You should be coming in a little above me."
Simons had his work cut out for him on this early June evening. He was attempting to get 10 musicians, aged 16 to the late 50s, all playing a cornucopia of instruments, to make the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" sound like something worth listening to. But after a third run-through, there was a murmur of satisfaction in the cramped basement studio when the final chord sounded.
"Alright - we did it," said drummer Dave Sokol. "I think that sounded pretty good," added Hayden Durand, a saxophone player from the Hopkins Academy jazz ensemble.
Though cover bands are a dime a dozen, the Muswell Hillbillies stand out: This is a group of extended family, friends and neighbors - all from Hadley - who span a generation and play music as a hobby rather than a profession. Six members come from Hopkins Academy, including five from the school's jazz ensemble; two are veteran arts and music writers who play some music on the side; another is a former professional guitarist who these days is spending much of his time raising two young sons.
What the members share, besides addresses in Hadley, is a love for the Kinks, particularly the songs from the "Muswell Hillbillies" album. Though they didn't match the album sales of other significant British Invasion groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the Kinks won accolades for lead singer Ray Davies' songwriting; they also influenced numerous other bands and developed a devoted (some would say fanatical) following. Of his band's attempt to recreate the Kinks' sound, Simons says,
"Everybody's really gotten into it, even the kids. Considering they were all born not long before the Kinks were hanging it up, that's saying something."
Hayden Durand, who's just finished his junior year at Hopkins, agrees. Before getting involved in the group, Durand, 17, knew only a handful of the Kinks' hits such as "Lola." Now he says of the group's music, "It's really good stuff."
The inspiration for covering "Muswell Hillbillies" came last summer, after Simons, 52, and his younger son, Jack, and Dave Sokol went to the Rendezvous Cafe in Turners Falls to hear a band led by Peter Mulvey, who records for the local Signature Sounds label. At the show, Mulvey's band played all the songs from the Tom Waits' album "Rain Dogs." He and Jack, a bass player who's about to turn 18, both Kinks fans, began discussing the idea of doing the same thing with "Muswell Hillbillies." Simons, who has written for music magazines such as Guitar Player, Musician and Acoustic Guitar, enlisted Dave Sokol. Sokol is a former music editor of the Valley Advocate, where he and Simons met in the late 1980s when Simons worked there. Simons then roped in his next-door neighbor, guitarist Bill Howard.
Crowded into the 12-by-20-foot rehearsal room in the Simonses' basement - even more cramped than usual because they'd just added a bulky Hammond organ to the room - the group was battling the heat through another rehearsal. But as they worked through "Muswell Hillbillies," anyone familiar with the album would have recognized the songs straightaway - they weren't note-for-note renditions, but they were close.
"Hey, I think we're almost there," said Sokol, sitting behind his drum kit, after the third song. "But were we picking up the pace too much on 'Holiday'? It felt like it to me."
Behind Sokol, a couple of the horn players, who were standing in a line near the wall, were talking about a Nintendo game. On the opposite side of the room, a bare-footed Dave Skelly swung over from the piano to pick up an electric guitar to join Howard and Simons for "Skin and Bone." Skelly, 22, was brought in to play keyboards after the initial Muswell Hillbillies group began rehearsals in January. A 2006 Hopkins Academy graduate who's now attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Skelly is a multi-instrumentalist who plays in his own band, Pop Party Opera. "He's our secret weapon," says Simons with a laugh.
Skelly and Jack Simons, in turn, recruited the five Hopkins Academy horn players: trumpeters Nate Aldrich and Chris Leveille, saxophonists Hayden Durand and Michael Leveille, and trombonist Emily Eagan.
Eagan, who's just 16, isn't fazed by being the only female in the group full time. "I think it's been a lot of fun," she says. She's joined by Paula Simons for backing vocals on a couple of songs. The Simonses' older son, Julian, 24, will also play drums on a few pieces at the Iron Horse show.
Group members have mostly learned the tunes from listening to Kinks records, while Skelly wrote scores for the horn players. Bill Howard, 43, who didn't know the Kinks' early songs when he joined the group, says he's been impressed not just with the music from "Muswell Hillbillies" but the lyrics as well: "They're great stories - they're about real people."
Tickets for Muswell Hillbillies present Kronikles are available at Northampton Box Office, 76 Main Street, 413-586-8686 and online at IHEG.com
David Simons provided a set-list in progress go whet your appetite.
Tin Soldier Man
Get Back in Line
Yes Sir, No Sir
Till the End of the Day
Where Have All the Good Times Gone
I’m Not Like Everybody Else
20th Century Man
Dead End Street
Do It Again
And a clip from this summer's show. Victoria!
And a clip from this summer's show. Victoria!