Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ben Demerath: The 194 Main Street Secret. An artist profile by Kevin Moore in anticipation of this Friday's 4 Toads in a Basket show at the Iron Horse in Northampton

This Friday, April 22nd at 7PM the Iron Horse presents 4 Toads in a Basket. "The Toads" are four valley favorites joining forces in an acoustic and amphibious super-group that claim to croak well together, warts and all. They are Dave Chalfant-guitars, bass, vocals,  Ben Demerath-guitar, mandolin, bass, vocals,  Tracy Grammer-guitar, violin, percussion, vocals, and Jim Henry-guitars, bass, vocal. 

Kevin Moore, a journalism student at UMass-Amherst, wrote a feature profile piece on Ben Demerath for one of his classes and we present it here, for the first time anywhere (not counting when he turned it into the professor.)

The Musical Warden

Nestled in the shadow of Mount Tom is a typical New England boarding school with arrogant and sarcastic prepsters whose lives are restricted to the confines of the scenic campus. For many of them life in dorms seams like prison, and in each prison there is a warden on the premises… a faculty member who is entrusted to look over the fifty plus students. Night in and night out this faculty member endures behind the back comments that only know-it-all teenagers could dish out. What the students at the Williston Northampton School in the all freshman 194 Main Street Dorm don’t know is that their dorm parent happens to be a rock star.

“I’m just the guy they roll their eyes at when I give them a unit ya know, or tell them to tuck their shirt in the dining hall” said “that dorm parent”.

That dorm parent is Ben Demerath. The students and faculty know that Mr. Demerath is a musician where he has been teaching music at the boarding school since 2001 when he left Bement School. What his students don’t know is how good he really is.

Demerath has been a critically acclaimed Folk singer/songwriter since the early ‘90s. In that time as a professional musician he has released two solo albums, and toured with some of the best folk and bluegrass musicians of all time.

“I knew that I also wanted to teach and that’s when I go the job at Bement, because Bement needed a hockey coach. I said if you let me teach music I’ll coach your hockey team and that’s how I got into teaching.”

Watching Ben Demerath teach is like being in the presence of a music encyclopedia. Think of a musician or song in any music genre from classical to hip-hop and chances are the passionate, animated teacher has heard them, and if he hasn’t it is only a matter of time before he learns about them.

“It has made me a much stronger musician, “ said Demerath, “but also it I think it’s been so good for me to have my eyes open to stuff that I normally wouldn’t hear. I am not in a vacuum here in this job in terms of the music I am exposed to. The stuff that I hear that students bring me to listen to is so great.”

Teaching has not only showed him new artists and types of music, but it has also made him a better musician and songwriter.

“I think it’s really good for me as a musician. Its very humbling, but I also think at the same time it really is good fuel for your fire as an artist ‘cause your teaching stuff and as your going through the process of teaching music to people I think its also in turn inspiring you.”
Riding the Oboe

Playing the oboe is a lot like being the lefty specialist in the bullpen for the Boston Red Sox. Seldom are you the star but you are always needed, and it is a skill that can take you to some great things. For Ben Demerath that led him to Northwestern University in Chicago.

“I played oboe and sang all the way through high school. I was an oboe major in college, it was the oboe that basically got me into college.”

Before Demerath evolved into musician of popular music he was trained classically. It seemed like he was destined to be a concert musician, shredding the music of the likes of Mozart and Vivaldi on his oboe.

“My freshman year I’m out in Chicago studying with one of the best oboists in the world, the principal oboist of the Chicago symphony. And playing it 6 hours a day, and making oboe reeds, that was my grade my freshman year of college, but it was the first class that we took was ethnomusicology.”

Ethnomusicology is as Mr. Demerath puts it is a “social science being applied to the study of music” and looks at music’s role in culture. That class would change the path of the young Demerath and lead him into developing into the musician he is today.

“That became my thing. I knew right away ok, I like too many different kinds of music to just play obo and classical music all the time. So I picked up a guitar and I started to teach myself the guitar. I switched my major to ethnomusicology. I did not want to be a performance major any more.”

Playing in a Traveling Band
Playing in a Traveling Band.Yeah!
Well, I'm flying 'cross the land, try'ing to get a hand,
Playing in a Traveling Band. 
– Playing in a Traveling Band by CCR

Ben Demerath is a New Englander through and through. He grew up locally in Amherst, attending Amherst Regional High School and his father was a professor at UMass-Amherst, while his mother taught special at Marks Meadow Elementary School in Amherst.

Demerath credits his parents as why he got into music, “Is it my dad bringing home a Credence Clearwater Revival album? Or The Beatles Abbey Road and me playing it on my toy record player while I’m scratching it listening to it? Or is it me listening to all the stuff in the car on the radio?”

That first CCR record to hit Demerath’s ear waves more than likely included their hit “Playing in a Traveling Band”, a song that would foreshadow what it was like for Mr. Demerath in his first year as a professional musician.

His junior year at Northwestern Demerath was a self-taught guitarist in the band Scotia Nova, and then later a spin off band called Artistic Feet. But upon graduation Demerath made his way west.

“I was in San Francisco the year after I graduated, and I really got into writing songs out there. But I didn’t think I would be a musician. I still thought I was just sort of gonna see where I would fit in” said Demerath. “Maybe I was gonna work in a recording studio, or be an engineer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I ended up getting into song writing.”

In 1992 Mr. Demerath was introduced to a banjo player by the name of Tony Furtado, a two-time winner of the National Bluegrass Banjo competition. At Furtado’s second album release the seed was planted for Demerath’s budding career as a popular musician. Furtado asked Demerath to be on his release tour. One of the songs Ben had to sing was “I Will” by the Beatles in the same key that Alison Krauss had sung on the album.

“We’re talking like ball busting way up there high. I don’t think I’ve recovered from singing that high, I’m still scarred from it,” said Demerath.

On that tour, a first for Demerath he met mandolinist Matt Flinner and bassist Sally Truet. Along with Furtado the wheels began to spin in forming what would end up being one of the premier bluegrass bands of the early ‘90s, SugarBeat. Within two days of forming the band SugarBeat had won the Telluride Festival band contest.

“This is a huge festival I had no idea what this meant until I got there. I look back on it and I think God I’m so lucky I got to do that, and it sort of took off from there. We decided to make an album and we booked a tour ourselves that winter. That basically took us all around the west,” said Mr. Demerath.

The tour took them to college towns across the U.S. and Canada, and their album came together in a whirlwind comparable to how the band was formed. SugarBeat was playing a festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania sometime in June 1994 when they  “went to the Pittsburgh Airport, rented a Ford Aerostar and drove to San Francisco in 36 hours. Recorded this album in one week” said Demerath.

“So we made this great album, which has yet to be on ITunes. It has been totally out of print but we are gonna get it out there” said Demerath. “We were like the cool hot “newgrass” band.”

Despite Demerath’s newfound success with SugarBeat, which lasted until 1996, he did not feel like a true bluegrass musician. Even after he delved into listening to bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley.

“For me the whole time I’m thinking, God I’m just a singer who knows how to play the guitar. I don’t know how to play bluegrass for real. What the hell do I know about bluegrass? I’ve just been thrown into this. It was really cool to get to do all that stuff. And people were really helpful.”

With SugarBeat, Demerath was on the road eight months out of the year for three years. “The sacrifices that people make and the choices that people have to make in order to do that… it’s really amazing what people give up,” said Demerath. Despite the great successes he was having with SugarBeat Mr. Demerath’s heart was always back home.

“I wanted to return to New England, and as luck would have it that sort of where the best coffee house scene was. Cause with all that driving… “Oh its just 12 hours from Salt Lake City to San Francisco”, where as here if I need to go to Boston I’m there in an hour and a half.”

Return to the Valley
“I was chomping at the bit to have a viable folk career where I could play coffee houses and festivals. So I came back to New England and started working on a solo album here.” – Ben Demerath

In 2000 Demerath released his second solo album “Jack of Fools”.  This album is Demerath’s greatest musical production. His melodic tenor voice reminds you of everyone and no one. You could spend an entire day making comparisons that somehow just do not fit. 

His songs have the chill feel of Jack Johnson, the soulful rasp of Jakob Dylan, but with the twang of the current country scene. You wonder how this album did not catapult him to success outside of the folk/bluegrass niche?

If you go back to the year 2000 you realize the music scene was radically different than it is now. Country was not a pop crossover, and the mellow singer/songwriters like the Jack Johnson’s of the world were not having mainstream success. You get the sense that if “Jack of Fools” was released now that it would have some sort of chart success.

“I still just love that album, I’m still really proud of it. Just like the other stuff it was really fun to do. Any time you get to make an album in the studio and come up with these cool arrangements, and have people come in and play on it and sing on it and you have these guests that are amazing. God your so lucky to do that,” said Demerath.

Demerath’s solo album got him on the road again however, this time it was less crazy and more intimate, “I drove all over the country once again. But this time it was fun because it’s you and your wife and your driving to a festival, seeing old friends, and playing at festivals, and stuff like that. It was great.”

The Day the World Changed

It is possible September 11th 2001 was the day Mr. Demerath’s budding solo career halted. He was introducing himself to his new school, Williston with a performance of the Traffic tune “Empty Pages”, at the weekly Tuesday morning assembly when planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City.

Demerath explain how after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “People didn’t want to go see live music, its tough to get people to go out and buy it anymore, and I felt really lucky that I was in a situation to have a new band that asked me to front it.”

That band was the bluegrass band Northern Lights who got their start in the mid 1970s. Their longtime singer Taylor Armerding had left the band, and Ben was able to step in and fill the void; allowing him to get away from the craziness of getting your name out their as a solo artist.

“I was able to come in and try to do something different. It was foolish to try to do what he did,” said Demerath.

During his 6-year run with Northern Lights which ended in 2008 and he was apart of 2 albums with the band, New Moon in 2005 and One Day in 2008. Both albums are extremely catchy and rock like only bluegrass can. Shortly after Demerath’s departure from the band the 30 plus year run of the band ended on March 13th 2010.

The Best They Say
Soon I’ll have my age
Of siliver not of grey
I hear it’s good the best they say
Will I still be strong
To let all come on
Please don’t let me feel it’s wrong
-          “Age” by Ben Demerath

It has been a decade since “Jack of Fools” was released. The hectic schedule of teaching, raising his four children with his wife Mary, and getting his masters degree has, “really taken a bit out of my song writing,” as he puts it.

“But I think there’s hope there. My kids are getting a little older, I’m almost done with my masters,” said Demerath.

Currently Demerath is in what people in the area are calling a super group, although he scoffs at that notion. Instead he sees the band as a really fun project where him and band members Jim Henry, Tracy Grammer, and Dave Chalfant play “anything anyone wants to play.”

The “supergroup” is called Four Toads in a Basket, and Demerath and Chalfant are writing together which as Demerath puts it, “this is why I’m excited about songwriting.” Four Toads in a Basket plans on playing gigs in the near future at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass. as well as some festivals and in Boston. Demerath has hope that something will be recorded down the road.

With things seemingly settling down Demerath has been thinking about releasing a 3rd solo album, and even Demerath himself cannot put a label on his style.

“I don’t know, it will probably be more of the same of me just allowing myself to not hold back from doing a tune because its too out there or too weird. Ya know, I think it will probably be a fun mix of stuff that’s built around acoustic instrument. But it has bass and drums and electric guitar, and good sort of rootsy sound to it. I’m always gonna be into roots music, and that acoustic sort of organic sound, I like that. “

If this next solo album materializes through the hustle and bustle of life and his new band it could be Demerath’s best project yet, a project that could make a dent in the ITunes of the students who learn from the passionate musician. Imagine an older, more well rounded Demerath who has come of age because he can incorporate all he has learned in the last ten years of teaching.

“I’m just really lucky to be in a community like this where I’m just one of many that are here to learn while teaching or learn while being a student,” said Demerath.

“That’s the other thing about teaching, it’s really good for you as an artist to think of you, yourself as a learner and being hungry to learn other things. Jesus, I had to learn had to play tenor saxophone last month. We didn’t have a tenor sax player and I had to sit down and learn the fingerings and practice, and play tenor sax in the concert band, while I was conducting [laughs],” said Demerath. “If that isn’t good for you I don’t know what… its gonna build…I don’t know if its gonna build character but its good for your musicianship to have to do that.“

If and when Demerath releases a third solo album chances are you will hear a sound that is all his own. Just like “Jack of Fools” it will remind you of everyone and no one, and when the time comes the word will spread around the 194 Main Street Dorm like wildfire. His students will finally understand the talents of their dorm parent, not to mention unknowingly make a prophet out of the Ben Demerath of 2000 who penned “Age”. The students will ask each other “Did you hear Mr. D’s new album?” and the reply will always be, “No, I haven’t yet, but I hear it’s good the best they say.”  -Kevin Moore

Ben's trip to Ghana, a blog.

Tickets for 4 Toads in a Basket this Friday at 7PM at the Iron Horse in Northampton are available at Northampton Box Office (NBO), 76 Main Street, 413-586-8686 and online at IHEG.com.  

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