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Published: 2009/02/22
by David Schultz

The Nocturnals Mule: A Howling Blend of Blues & Lasers

Down in the basement of New York City’s Sullivan Hall, Scott Tournet, the motivating force behind Blues & Lasers, is rummaging through his belongings looking for anything on which he can create a set list. Instead of listening to the Nate Wilson Group tearing it up one floor above, the dressing room is overwhelmed by the pulsing bass from the adjacent dance club. Even more troubling, the beer cooler is empty. From the looks of things, you would be hard pressed to discern that within the next 24 hours Tournet and two of his Blues & Lasers band mates, Bryan Dondero & Matt Burr, would be playing at one of Washington D.C.’s inaugural events in their other guise as Grace Potter’s Nocturnals. Far from disapproving of the Spartan accommodations, Tournet seems to enjoy the experience of returning to the clubs, hungry to prove himself with a new band. As he relates his thoughts to guitarist Benny Yurco, drummer Steve Sharon and Dondero, he plots out the set list on a paper plate. As Burr is absent from the meeting, they good naturedly come up with a backup plan for “Take You Down” in case Burr doesn’t notice the tempo shift they plan on implementing. If the ease with which this seemingly new band relates to each other may appear too good to be true: it’s because it is, Blues and Lasers may not have many shows under their belt but the five Vermont based musicians have a lot of experience playing together in various iterations.

Blues & Lasers evolved from the remnants of The Scott Tournet Band. “It started with the last song I wrote for the band,” explains Tournet, referring to “22 Times,” the growling burst of electrified Delta blues that kicks off Blues & Lasers. “When I played that one, it was a whole other thing from what we had been doing, which was a little softer. It felt really comfortable playing it live,” recalls Tournet. With the seeds of Blues & Lasers sown in the summer of 2007, it took a while for Tournet to bring the concept to fruition. “As the Tournet band, I spearheaded it and it was pretty much all of my tunes,” he says. “I’m trying to turn it into more of a band.”

“It was rather sudden in concept, and gradual because of our endless touring schedule with GPN,” explains Dondero of Tournet’s epiphany. “I remember Scott with a big shit eating grin on his face saying that he had a new idea, a new concept for a band. It was actually kind of an old idea that he and some of our friends came up with years ago after a dirty impromptu jam – which probably sounded like blues with lasers,” relates Dondero giving some insight into the group’s name. “After Scott described his idea to me, I laughed my ass off and said, I'm so in.’ The band formed at a perfect time for me as I had just acquired a Theremin and a Moog LP synth. I was definitely ready to make some lasers.” Theremin? Does that qualify as blues or lasers? “Interestingly, the Theremin was around since the 30's, so perhaps it did influence Robert Johnson is his later life, post soul selling of course,” clarifies Dondero.

“It wasn’t softer and it wasn’t harder,” recalls Sharon, who has known Tournet from their days together at Goddard College. “It wasn’t entirely Delta blues, it was more 70s style rock and roll. We were starting to get a Southerny quality to the music.” The new direction was going to require that the band transform a little from the traditional band set up of the Tournet band. “Scott wanted to keep playing with me and Bryan,” explains Sharon. “We were concerned about whether we wanted to have another drummer in the band and whether I would be comfortable playing with anyone else? Plus, we were also looking for a guitar player and trying to figure out what to do there.”

With Blues & Lasers, Tournet set out to recreate a forgotten style of rock and roll, to revive an era when guitarists like Roy Buchanan had free reign to intensely explore areas of the blues and classic rock. In order to find likeminded musicians, Tournet didn’t have to search long or travel far. To find Dondero and Burr, he only had to look to the back of the Nocturnals’ tour bus, for Sharon, he only had to ask his roommate and to find Yurco, he just had to explore the fertile and burgeoning musical scene in Vermont, which at times has a little Haight Ashbury feel with numerous musicians living in close proximity and eager to help each other out. “I like it,” says Yurco of the thought of there being a slice of the communal sixties still thriving in his neck of the woods. “I never thought of it that way. It’s too cold,” he laughs. “All those band are really different too, doing their own thing.”

Many will come see Blues & Lasers on the strength of Tournet & The Nocturnals’ reputation. However, they will leave with a newfound amazement for Benny Yurco. As if he stepped out of a cartoon, Yurco is a lightning rod for calamity and the friendly and benignly mischievous guitarist always seems to be at the center of some swirl of activity. Whenever he’s out of sight, you worry what type of trouble he may get himself into. Once he’s on stage though, you don’t have to worry about him. An able foil for Tournet, his ability to nimbly zip through various styles seems to push and inspire Tournet to up his game. Yurco’s a fine songsmith as well, his “Fallen Friend” and “Sue Me” perfect Blues & Lasers vehicles.

Tournet and Sharon both point to Yurco’s involvement with Blues & Lasers as a benchmark, even if no one is quite clear how they actually met. “You know how you met me,” Yurco tells Tournet, who reacts with a bemused expression on being chided by Yurco. “I met you at Albertson when I came down to see you guys play, because you were hot as shit. I asked you about your Fender Telecaster. That’s where I met Bryan, I think you blew out my amplifier,” he says, pausing for a second. “It was at the Bernie Sanders benefit,” continues Yurco. “And I blew out your amp before I even met you,” finishes Tournet, now recalling the incident.

“I get a call, Dude, Scott Tournet just blew your amp up,’” an animated Yurco recalls, bringing a big smile to Tournet’s face. “I’m sure you said, Ah, I’ve got to be in a band with that guy,’” jokes Tournet. “That was basically our first introduction to each other,” continues Yurco. “Scott blowing out my amplifier and then not remembering it.” Yurco then bursts out laughing. “That’s all right, I had more work done than I needed on it anyway,” he says of the repairs Tournet paid for.

Like all good stories, Tournet remembers everything completely different. He recalls meeting Yurco just before New Year’s, going at Yurco’s insistence to see him play at Vermont’s Higher Ground. Yurco proceeded to tear the house down, playing terrifically but apparently very loudly. “The house manager came in and totally scolded you and then shut the room down,” Tournet tells Yurco of the night.

With Yurco lurking in the collective unconscious, the thought of his inclusion with Blues & Lasers met with immediate approval. Yurco, who was in New York at the time, leapt at the opportunity. “When I got the call, I came all the way up [to Vermont],” he recalls. “I met them over at Club Metronome and wailed out a few tunes.” Rather than tread circumspectly with the lineup, Tournet sensed he had something. “We played around, did maybe one show and then we recorded.”

Ironically, in order to come up with something new and exciting, Blues & Lasers mines a genre that has unquestionably spawned our culture’s most successful music, revitalizing the long dormant energy of the Delta blues with two guitars, two drums and one Bryan Dondero. Five songs stretched out over forty-five minutes, the self-titled Blues & Lasers, joyously resurrects the blues-based rock and roll that populated AOR radio in the Seventies. The songs have a juju swagger; birthed from tortured blues singers who had haunted souls and bad intentions the back door men who had hell hounds on their trail. Raucous Delta blues, Blues & Lasers recreates the sweaty juke joint feel of the dirty south with rave-ups like “WNWGD” and “Rooster,” the purposeful strident “Who Do You Think You Are” and the colossal closer, “Devil Wrapped Around Me,” a wild concoction of voodoo blues, psychedelic Floyd which has a “Love Sick” derived organ break courtesy of Ms. Potter.

Sounding like it was recorded in a packed, sweaty club, Blues & Lasers was captured in an empty Club Metronome over a couple lengthy sessions. “It was kind of like day camp. You set up all your shit, take breaks every hour or two, go smoke a cigarette, go on the street and watch the girls walk by,” Tournet relates fondly. “The whole thing was very relaxed,” adds Yurco. “It was definitely a little Blues & Lasers fraternity over those three days.” “Sex, drugs & rock and roll,” proclaims Tournet. He then pauses, looks at Yurco and they both seem to remember that for the most part it was their group of guys then adds “well minus the sex,” he clarifies. “And minus the bus,” adds Yurco.

The open, hollow room gave the album the exact sound they wanted. “They were generous enough to let us pitch a tent in there for a couple days,” explains Yurco. “We had our good friend Ben Collette, a local Burlington engineer who’s worked with Trey Anastasio, come in and set up the mikes and we had the stage and the entire room all to ourselves. There’s nothing like being together and actually being on the same page rather than going back and trying to find where everyone started their paragraph. One the benefits of recording live, rather than track by track, is that you’re working as a team. There was no going back and seeing if you could get a better guitar solo. It is what it was,” Yurco concludes.

“I wanted it to sound like a Junior Kimbrough record,” relates Tournet. “The whole point of it was to capture a band playing well together and not stressing about things like microphones. It was about working on the songs for hours and getting them right instead of capturing the best moments and putting it together later. The worse thing that was going to happen was that good music was going to happen. I wanted to make it less about the recording and more about playing good music.” As if to prove the point, a brief discussion then ensues over whether “WNWGD” would sound better if sung through a megaphone (it might) and whether one could be found on short notice (it could not). “It doesn’t matter if the microphones are good if you’re not playing good music,” says Tournet. “The focus is on what’s really real and the energy,” follows up Yurco.

When thinking of the master purveyors of the Delta blues, most roads don’t lead to Vermont. The issue makes Sharon laugh heartily “We’ve been listening to that music our whole lives and we respect it,” he says, stressing respect. “Whether it was given to us or we discovered it on our own, we respect it and we understand it and we’ve all been down and broken-hearted and that music helps you get over it. It’s a passion,” he says. Tournet is more practical with his explanation of how Vermonters can get the blues. “CDs, man. YouTube,” he says with a grin. “Check out The Black Keys: a couple of white dudes from the suburbs of Akron, Ohio and look at what they can do,” notes Tournet. “Look at 10 Years After,” chimes in Yurco.

Echoing back to the days when bands like The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead utilized two drummers, Blues & Lasers gets a double burst from Sharon & Burr. The two have different styles and the interaction works well. “I think we help each other become better drummers,” explains Sharon. “By playing with me, I think that helps him and by extension the Nocturnals and vice versa, he helps me stay in a groove. Matt’s got great ideas, great songs and he’s an awesome person. We had a long intensive rehearsals and a long intensive recording process. I’m watching him; he’s watching me. I’m grooving with him; he’s grooving with me. If he has an idea and I hear it, I go with it,” Sharon is finding the experience rewarding and enjoys finding a simpatico with another drummer. “You’re giving each other space to breathe as long as you can stay on the beat and still be flamboyant at the same time.”

There’s a harder side to Grace Potter & The Nocturnals that didn’t entirely make it onto their 2007 release, This Is Somewhere. On stage, it would manifest itself in songs like “Over Again,” “Every Mile” and “Bella Donna.” With Blues & Lasers, does Tournet now have an outlet for some of the rock and roll aggression that can build up? “On some levels but not in a bad way,” he says. The worlds aren’t colliding though. “I don't know that Blues & Lasers has had a direct influence on GPN other than the line of shows we did as double-headers,” says Dondero. “Well . . . .I guess since it was easier leaving my Moog keyboard on stage after the Blues & Lasers set, I started using that in the GPN set a bit. Blues & Lasers provides Scott, Matt and I with an outlet to play longer, more experimental music. Though GPN has been known have bouts of experimentation and extended improv, there is less pressure for Blues & Lasers to do songs’ which is fun.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Tournet. “There’s one riff that I wrote for “Watching You” that I use in “Who Do You Think You Are,” just a little bit slower,” he explains. “It’s like that thing songwriters will do where they write two or three songs that aren’t exactly alike but they have the same kind of trademark quality to them.”

More than a diversion, Tournet delighted in Blues & Lasers’ recent jaunt to New York City, a trip they will make again on March 21, when they return to Sullivan Hall for a post-Allman Brothers Band set. However, taking Blues & Lasers out for an extending tour on their own, presents a different set of problems. “It’s not a matter of desire but rather a factor of time, energy and being careful not to spread yourself too thin,” confesses Tournet. In fact, shortly after the Blues & Lasers set at Sullivan Hall, Dondero gracefully bowed out of Blues & Lasers citing the strain that the time commitments that two bands places upon your private life and other ongoing projects. [Vermont musician John Rogone has since stepped into the breach.] Tournet recognizes the practicalities: he has ambitious expectations for Blues & Laser but they are tempered, mainly by his love for his other band and acknowledgment for how much he, Potter, Dondero and Burr have accomplished in a relatively short period of time. “Ideally, I’d like to see this become my Gov’t Mule to Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ Allman Brothers Band.”

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