Among the many accomplished musicians living on Vinalhaven, Norm Reidy and Joe Nelson are two of the quieter ones. Neither one seems to feel the need to talk when they don’t have anything to say, and when they’re playing with a group in public both tend to pretty much stay in the background and support other people’s songs. If they’re inconspicuous, it’s probably because they do this so well
: Reidy’s steady rhythm guitar and harmonizing vocals are to be felt rather than heard, and Nelson can play whatever needs to be played on whatever instrument it needs to be played on. Rarely does either take the mike for themselves in public.
Consequently, some islanders, even some island musicians, might be surprised to see “Simpatico” – a new CD of songs that Reidy and Nelson have written over the years – at a local store. They’ll be even more surprised when they listen to it and discover that these two quiet guys have such strong, rich voices – and that they sing songs that aren’t quite like anything else, an eclectic bunch of songs at times bluesy, twangy and folksy, with lyrics which run the gamut from hilarious to touching.
The CD was recorded at both Nelson’s home studio and “The Flophouse,” Jamie Thomas’s recording studio and practice space, which has come to operate almost like a musical co-op on Vinalhaven. Thomas owns the building, but it’s filled with equipment from a variety of people and often profits from “playing out” will go towards new equipment or heating costs. “Simpatico” is the first release from the loosely-formed collective of around 20 Vinalhaven musicians that uses and contributes to the space.
As it happens, Reidy and Nelson have been sharing their songs with each other for some time. The motivation to release the CD together came from several sources: they wanted to encourage other Vinalhaven musicians to record and release albums, they hoped to bring more attention to the quality of music on the island, and they wanted to learn from the process of doing it. But they also just felt like it was time to clean out their musical closets.
“I guess we just needed to unload some stuff before we did any more,’ Reidy said. “Joe and I have been trading song back and forth for awhile. I’d given him some of my songs and coaxed him into giving me some of his and I found myself listening to them all the time. Some of these songs he’d done years ago; to him they were probably dead, but to me they were great. I just didn’t want him to leave them in the closet.”
Many of Nelson’s songs have been perpetual works-in-progress: he’d laid down the original tracks years ago and gone back to tweak them from time to time since, adding layers, taking layers away, experimenting with different textures. Reidy’s songs on “Simpatico” were recorded in a similar fashion over the course of last winter specifically for the CD. After getting a crash-course in recording from Nelson, who studied audio engineering in college, Reidy recorded his rhythm guitar and vocals, then pulled Joe and others (John Arey, Scott Tolman, and Pat Allen) into the studio to put down drums, lead guitar, bass, dobro, sax, bamboo sax and keyboards.
“It’s fun for me to be able to create something for people to feed off of, then it just snowballs from there as people put their parts on,” Reidy said. “I don’t think people realize how much talent there is here. There’s so many people who can play – it’s just a matter of getting them in the right element.”
Reidy said he has already begun recording BarnRatt, the country and blues band he plays in along with Thomas, Arey, Tolman, Eric Beckman, Bruce Arey, Harry Ross and others. Islanders have been listening to BarnRatt’s high-lonesome sound for over 10 years, and many look forward to finally being able to take the band’s blues, train songs and country ballads home with them on CD.
“We just thought it would be a good thing to put something out, especially because we had so much done already, to just kind of get the ball rolling for other stuff to happen at the studio,” Nelson said. “And it’s started a little, which is great.”
Reidy hopes the recording bug will continue to spread, particularly to younger generations. “I hope this kind of encourages other bands to record and to realize that it’s possible to do it, even if it’s not at a super-professional level,” he said. “Inspiration works off of inspiration. At least that’s the way it’s been for me and Joe.”
Reidy and Nelson both say one of the biggest lessons they learned from the collaborative recording process was the importance of honesty and being up front. “I’ll show him a couple of tunes, and if he doesn’t like them, he tells me,” Reidy said. “Which is good. Saves a lot of time.”
“I’ve found that it’s pretty important,” Nelson agreed. “It’s tough sometimes, but once you start it makes things a lot easier.”
For Reidy, who has two off-island siblings who have also released CDs, the project was also motivated by the hope of carrying on a tradition.
“My old man has cassette tapes of when he was 30 years old singing tunes – I listen to them sometimes. For me it’s like making a place that you can go back to. So that my kids can go back and listen to their old man when they’re in their 30s. Because you know damn well they’re going to be doing the same thing.”
“Simpatico” can be found at the Paper Store, Go Fish, Everything Country and Island Home & Craft in Vinalhaven, and at Karmarama Music Emporium and Archipelago on Main St. in Rockland.