Russ Lawton: Livin’ La Rhythmo Loco
Somewhere in Bethlehem, PA there is a vegetarian restaurant with great food and Russ Lawton is determined to find it. "Maybe it's on the other side of the tracks," he says as I drive down Main Street where there's a cluster of quaint mom-and-pop shops and independent retail. Russ doesn't recognize any of it. Although he's been to Bethlehem countless times before, he never knew this area existed. On the car ride from the hotel, he painted Bethlehem as a street-fighting town with broken glass and barbed wire shanties. His bands first Zzebra and then Gordon Stone used to play a tavern somewhere around here, in a dangerous neighborhood. Still, Russ professes a soft spot for the place. He has a lot of old friends here. And besides, "there's this great vegetarian place that I can't wait to eat at again," he says. We make a couple turns and hope dims. We appear to be on the other side of the town. The landscape is sharp, the shops appealing. As we park on a side street and settle for a bagel shop, Russ sighs. "Oh man, I was really hoping to turn you on to great vegetarian food."
In the four years that I have known Russ, I have yet to have one conversation with him in which he doesn't mention vegetarian food. As a matter of fact, the first time I met him he told me about a book he took with him everywhere that listed vegetarian restaurants in every town in America. The Russ Lawton Bible.
Shortly after that first encounter, I met up with him in Binghamton, NY. It was May 13, 1999 and Russ was eight shows deep into Trey Anastasio's first-ever solo tour. Russ was on drums. His buddy Tony Markellis was on bass. Trey was on guitar. The tour was a two-week theater run, and every show was a just-add-water sellout. Outside the venue in Binghamton, miracles were hard to come by. Unlike Trey's arena shows with Phish, where a good number of ticketless could find their way inside, in Binghamton if you came without a ticket, you left disappointed. Of course, this was all old hat for Trey. In 1999, Phish were one of the top grossing live acts, hosting festivals with 70,000+ people on abandoned air force bases, and playing god to thousands of devoted followers who hung on the band's every move. Summer vacations were planned around the band's tourdates, and entire months were spent following the band from show to show.
For Trey, this little side-excursion was an off-the-record retreat. But for Russ and Tony, this was their introduction to the big time. And they were loving it. Sitting down at the bagel shop in Bethlehem, Russ reminisces between bites of hummus: "I didn't know Trey Tony knew Trey." The story goes that Trey called up Tony to get together and jam, and asked him who he thought would be a good drummer for the project. Having been friends for years, Russ was Tony's first choice. The three of them got together and it clicked.
Still, it took a long time for the project to launch. The first time the three of them played together in public, it was on April 17, 1998. A one-off at Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont the trio expanded to include Heloise Williams (ViperHouse) and Tom Lawson (the Pants). Billed as "The 8 Foot Florescent Tubes," the show included a visual element, complete with stage actors, and the band debuted a number of tunes that would later go on to become Trey and Phish standards. That night, recalls Russ, "Trey said We're going to do some jams, and if it doesn't work, I'll get us out of it.'" It worked.
After the show, Russ didn't hear from Trey for almost a full year. Phish was recording Story of the Ghost and touring the world. Russ also had a stacked schedule. In addition to being a member of the Gordon Stone Band, Russ had an endless amount of session work, hired-gun gigs, and his own band, Rhythmo Loco, to juggle.
Then, on February 15, 1999 the trio (Trey, Russ, Tony) reunited at Higher Ground for an Arts of Vermont benefit concert. Three months later, the band embarked on their first tour. Although they had limited time to prepare, and much material to learn, the band was explosive from the start. And at every show they just got better. Russ remembers playing "Sand" one night in the middle of the tour. He retells it dramatically, as if something important had happened that night. Something big, I mean: "It was the last song in the set, and I remember we went backstage and were like, What the hell just happened?' I was shaking, man. I was shaking! It was something beautiful."
It wasn't the first time playing music had that effect on him, but it was a feeling rare enough for him to know how fortunate he was to feel it again. Like true love you're lucky enough if you find it once.
"With Zzebra, it used to be like that," says Russ, ruefully. Out of the dozens of bands he's played in, Zzebra stands next to Trey Anastasio in the echelon of importance. An Afro-fusion band from the 70s, Zzebra had success in Europe before relocating to Burlington, where Russ joined the band. It was a period in his life that he'll never forget.
"With Zzebra it was really, really emotional," says Russ. "And I was younger too, but something was going on. Something like that passion that I used to feel when I was in the drum core, as a kid, and the drums are coming at you and it's just like, Woah! What is this?' And you don't know you're like 10 years old and going What? I'm getting all emotional here! Why is this happening?'"
When I tell him that a lot of fans pick up that same level of intensity from Trey Anastasio's band, Russ nods. "That's why I play. Not that you can get off every second, but there are those times, and it happens a lot with this band. It represents what I like to do as a drummer. I'm just smacking it down, and doing some funky beat rock with a little Afro and a little Latin thrown in. That's really what I love doing."
Still, immediately after that first tour, Trey went back in the studio and on the road with Phish, and Russ returned to his duties with the Gordon Stone Band. He also signed up for a never-ending array of new projects, including a tour with vocalist Michelle Wilson, soundtrack work for independent films (such as Mike Gordon's Outside Out), and studio work with Rhythmo Loco.
Of course, as much fun as those projects were, Russ missed playing with Trey. He missed those nights where the jams took both the band and the audience to another level of consciousness.
In Trey Anastasio's band, Russ Lawton gets into some pretty serious shit. Long 20-minute jams, dense compositions, complex arrangements, severe improvisation. His drumming is heavily influenced by international rhythms and his head is filled with an encyclopedic knowledge of The Beat. Yet, if you listen to what he does I mean really listen all of his snap, crackle, and pops are just a front. Deep down, this guy is all about the groove. He's a slave to it.
If his playing is a paradox of complexity and groove, his personality is fairly the same. He's soft spoken, gentle, and kind. But when he speaks, it's not quite complete sentences. He speaks in fragments, almost like he's juggling four thoughts or limbs at once, letting each one do their thing. Transcribing him is a bitch. But, like his drumming, as enjoyable as it is to hear him talk, the real joy is in hearing what he has to say. His child-like enthusiasm is infectious and his purity of intent nothing short of heartwarming. After sold-out shows, he stands humbly, if awkwardly, in the hospitality area signing autographs for fans. Each time, he seems genuinely flattered. He also steals armfuls of natural juices and green tea from the cooler "For the bus ride!"
When Trey called up Russ in December of 2000, Phish had just announced an indefinite hiatus. The future of Phish was unknown. Like Russ, Trey dove headfirst into a number of his own projects, but clearly the solo band became a central part of his plans. Adding a horn section (Dave Grippo, Jen Hartswick, and Andy Moroz), the band went back out on the road in February of 2001.
"That was an intense tour," says Russ, smiling. "I remember it was after Christmas and I got really sick. I played a couple gigs around New Year's and I was running around not getting any sleep. We didn't know if we were going to get together, but the three of us would hang out, and then it was like, Hey let's do it!' That Sunday, I was going to go into the studio and mix some of my own stuff. But then Trey gave me a call and said, Hey, let's get together this weekend,' and then we did, and then two days later he booked a tour. That was a lot of new information on my head, on that tour. I wanted to do a good job."
In addition to expanding the band from a trio to a sextet, Trey worked up a lot of new material. Like the first tour, much of the material was pieced together by jam sessions with the trio, where for instance Trey would ask Russ to give him a beat and he'd write something around it. (Notably, "First Tube," "Mozambique," and "Sand" were formed this way.)
After that tour, again everyone split. For Russ that meant returning to the Gordon Stone Band, as well as recording an album with popular European singer-songwriter Bobby Gosh. This time, however, the break was minimal. Without Phish as Trey's priority, his solo band became the primary source for his creative output. So he increased the band by two, bringing total membership up to eight. The addition of Russ Remington on sax and flute gave even more depth to the horn section, and Ray Pazkowski (ViperHouse) added an entirely new element on keyboards. The band embarked on their first ever coast-to-coast tour. The schedule got longer; the venues got larger. For the first time in his life, Russ Lawton was headlining huge summer amphitheaters, including the famed Red Rocks in Colorado and the Tweeter Center (previously Great Woods) in Mansfield, MA, where just two summers before, Russ watched Phish perform First Tube. This time, he was the one playing it.
The tour wrapped on August 5, 2001 in Tony's hometown of Saratoga Springs, NY. Trey took everyone back to his recording studio (The Barn) in Vermont for some recording while the band was still hot from tour. The band recorded their rehearsals before the tour as well, and Trey planned on combining tracks from both pre-and-post to gather material for a solo album.
Once those sessions were over, everybody scattered. Russ and Tony, friends for years, kept in touch, and the two would occasionally play gigs together. Russ also played with Dave Grippo from time to time, but overall, everyone had their own lives to go back to. "We're all spread out," explains Russ. "Everybody has families, and it gets hard [to keep in touch], man. But it's funny, because George Harrison had a cool thing he would say. When he played in a band, he would call them his boys' all the time. And that's kind of how I grew up too I'm a band guy. And I still hang out with bands from my past."
In the spring of 2002, Trey Anastasio released his first-ever solo album, on Elektra Records. Although it was Trey's deal, suddenly Russ found himself on a major label. There were television and radio appearances. "Cayman Review" and "Alive Again" were getting airplay. Trey increased the band to 10, with the addition of Peter Apfelbaum on horns, and Cyro Baptista on percussion, and took them out on a massive 25-date summer tour.
"I love playing with a percussionist!" Russ tells me. But perhaps what he means to say is that he loves playing with Cyro. Within minutes of being introduced to each other, the two had found a connection. "He toured with Steve Gadd for I don't know how long," Russ gushes, "and Steve Gadd is one of my heroes." Cyro has also recorded and/or toured with Sting, David Byrne, Robert Palmer, Brian Eno, and a jaw-dropping list of dozens more. He's found an obvious fan in Russ. "Cyro was in Paul Simon's band," he says, appreciatively. "He's played with everybody."
As he talks about playing with Cyro, he keeps referring to the fact that Cyro is from Brazil. Russ has been called "the drummer with the Mozambique feel," but he's always had strong Brazilian tendencies as well, and one of his major lifelong influences is Airto Moreira.
Russ almost blushes as he explains that he feels somehow connected to Brazilian rhythms because his grandparents are from Portugal. "Maybe it's my own little fantasy," he says sheepishly, "but that music has always touched me. I like to believe that there's a piece of it inside me."
Not long after the summer tour ended, Russ was informed that there would be a short fall tour. He was also told that Phish was going to reunite after that. During our lunch, knowing that there're just six more shows, I ask him what he thought when he first heard the news. Did he think that this might be the end of the band?
"Yeah," he says candidly. "I think everybody did."
Phish has reunited just as Trey's solo band solidified, and just as everybody really got to know everyone, musically. When the band regrouped at The Barn on October 15, just seven days before the start of tour, Trey still had new material for them. This batch was written entirely independent of the band; some were co-written by Trey's longtime songwriting partner, Tom Marshall.
But Russ doesn't think that Trey is using leftover, or test-drive, material. "I think he's writing stuff and bringing in stuff that he knows is going to work with this band," Russ observes, citing a tune like "Perhaps" that has a distinctive Latin groove to it. "It's a really great song, and I love it. But it's almost like you're in [two bands] and you say Yeah, this one will work for this band.' We can make this happen. You're working with a personality."
"We're also playing a tune that Cyro did with Wynton Marsalis," says Russ. "We'll probably play it tonight. It's more of a feel' thing than a chops' thing, and that's what I like."
At soundcheck that night, Trey goes over a number of tunes with the band, working on specific sections. "Sweet Dreams Melinda" gets reworked so that the horns continue to vamp underneath Trey's solo section. Some new tunes get tightened up. It looks, from a spectator's standpoint, as if this band is just getting off the ground and is on the cusp of breaking through to another level. Russ tells me that there's now a heightened understanding between the players. It's one of those things that only comes with time. This is a band still in its infancy.
It's been just three years since their first tour. The current lineup is less than one year old. And yet, this past summer, they headlined the massive three-day Bonnaroo music festival in front of an audience of 100,000 (by some estimates). It's a feat that most bands won't achieve in their entire career.
When this tour is over, Russ will close a chapter in his musical history. He will no longer be a card-carrying member of the Gordon Stone Band. For three years, he's had to bail out of gigs in order to rehearse, or record, or tour with Trey. For his part, Gordon Stone has played with Phish and their various side-projects many times before, and he's always been supportive when Russ had to pull out of gigs. But, says Russ, "He needed to move on, and I was just going in a different direction. There are no hard feelings. We're too old, too mature for that now."
Russ hopes to still play the odd gig with Gordon when schedules allow, and he has no doubt the two will remain good friends. "I said to him, I'll miss riding in the van with you.' As a matter of fact, I'm going to call him when I get home just to say hello and see how he's doing."
As for the future of the Trey Anastasio band, who is to say really? On the car ride back to the hotel, after lunch, I mention to Russ that everyone I've talked to generally assumed that Trey's solo band had become a semi-permanent ongoing project.
"We did something that was really special," he says. "We all feel that. And if we just do it when we can, that's good. I ran into Trey a couple weeks ago at one of Cyro's shows [with his band Beat The Donkey]. Trey pulled me aside and was like, I want to talk to you, man. Don't think that Phish being back means this is over. You know we're still going to play together.'
"You assume things, and Phish is going to take a lot of his time, and that's fine. Whatever has to happen. If we do it, it's like anything else; you touch base once in awhile and it's cool."
After reminiscing with me about the trio tour, when this whole thing really started, Russ says: "We did Windora Bug last night and we Tony and Trey and I all got these big smiles on our faces. It's like when you start a new relationship, and [years later] you do that remember when?' thing. It's still special man."
Since the beginning, Russ has always told me that he knows any tour with Trey could be the last ("It's like, that cat can play with anybody who am I?"). He has also always told me that this band feels too right, like it has to continue. So will this be the last tour?
He grins, and says, "No, I don't think so."
Author Benjy Eisen reminds you that he will gladly accept your New Year’s extra