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The mask comes off Los Straitjackets

Oct 24, 2019

Los Straitjackets -- that's Greg Townson in the red mask.
Credit Yep Roc Records

There are times when Greg Townson seems to be spread so thin, you can read these words right through him. He’s a co-founder of The Hi-Risers, the glorious garage-rock trio, a steady part of the Rochester scene since 1989. Playing guitar on tours with soul singer John Ellison and pop singer Eleni Mandell. Or he’s jetting back and forth between here and London as a hired guitar, or to produce a record for a band like the Swiss rockabilly outfit Hillbilly Moon Explosion. The song, “My Love For Evermore,” Townson says, “is a standard in Europe, people have it tattooed on them. And they even use it as a wedding song.

“Ironically, it’s a murder ballad.”

And there’s the more immediate concern. Los Straitjackets, playing Friday at the Historic German House, 315 Gregory St. Townson has been with the masked masters of twang instrumentals since 2010.

Those Mexican wrestling masks began as a one-off joke at a show years ago. But the joke went over so well that Los Straitjackets never took them off. And they fit particularly well in late October. “There’s a little bit of a Halloween aspect to it, except we wear masks all year ’round,” Townson says. Los Straitjackets does make seasonal adjustments; it’s likely Friday’s show will include the band’s version of the theme from “The Munsters.”

But as musicians, Los Straitjackets are no joke. Nick Lowe is a respected English rocker; he’s written beauties like “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” And for the past few years, Los Straitjackets has been touring with Lowe as the band’s singer.

Lowe was always the only one without the mask.

“Actually, this is the first tour we’ve done this year that Nick is not with us,” Townson says. “When he first asked us to tour with him, we listened to his old records, tried to figure out the parts. And he said, ‘No, no, don’t listen to the records, I want you to do what you do. I want to join your band.’”

And leave the masks on. “He likes the mischief of that,” Townson says.

The Historic German House plays a role in this story. “Part of the connection between Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets is we got started there,” Townson says. Lowe was playing a solo gig at the venue. Townson was the opener, playing solo as well. Lowe’s longtime producer and friend, Neil Brockbank, was watching Townson from the wings. “I can still picture Neil jumping up and down, he just loved it,” Townson says. “Neal and I became very close friends. I hired him to do a lot of projects in London.”

Brockbank died of cancer in 2017. That’s resonated with Townson, and the rest of Los Straitjackets. “It’s partly because of that that we make the most of our time together,” Townson says.

When the mask does come off Townson, he stays busy with his own projects. His latest album, “More Travelin’ Guitar,” quite logically follows “Travelin’ Guitar,” and includes some excellent covers, including “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” and “Venus,” the latter of which he’ll likely be doing on this tour.

Townson’s old band, The Hi-Risers, have played a key role in keeping Los Straitjackets on the road. The Hi-Risers’ former drummer, Jason Smay, left to play with Los Straitjackets from 2005 to 2012. Hi-Risers bassist Todd Bradley filled in some when Pete Curry had to undergo shoulder replacement surgery. In fact, Townson says Bradley will likely join the band Friday night to sing a song in Spanish.

And Trevor Lake, the drummer with Friday night’s opening band, Rochester’s The Televisionaries, has a role in this story as well.

“After Jason moved to Nashville, we took a five-year hiatus,” Townson says. “Trevor was a big fan of The Hi-Risers, and he approached me about possibly playing in the band.” 

So the Hi-Risers have been revived, with Lake on drums. “We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t for him,” Townson says.

This has led to a new burst of songwriting for Townson. He’s manic about it. “I forget about eating; eating and sleeping becomes secondary,” he says. But once a Hi-Riser, always a Hi-Riser, that sound never gets out of the garage. “When I was touring with Eleni Mandell, that was outside of my world,” Townson says of her hipster-jazz vibe. “And I loved working with her, her songs are great.

“But I’m just trying to get right what I do.”

Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $20 advance, $25 the day of the show, and are available at Abilene Bar & Lounge, Record Archive and abilenebarandlounge.com.

What’s in the name

When this Arts & Life column debuted last week, it was nameless. And I want to thank folks for the 50 or so suggestions that rolled in over the past week. “Wait a Minute, Chester,” damn near won. I like the mysterious aspect of it, a random line drawn from The Band’s “The Weight.” But Monday night I was at The Little Café. Watkins & the Rapiers were playing, and they summoned Connie Deming from the audience. The best singer in Rochester. She did my favorite Beatles song. And I thought, that’s it: “Across the Universe.”

Renaissance at Naz

The Harlem Renaissance was a 1920s explosion of arts, intellect and social awareness in that black neighborhood of New York City. We get a sense of the energy Saturday with “Harlem 100 featuring Mwenso & The Shakes: Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance,” at Nazareth College’s Callahan Theater, 4245 East Ave. 

Images of Fats Waller and Billie Holiday, alongside the literature and fashion of the day, are a part of this multimedia show. It’s set to the percussion-heavy beat of Mwenso & The Shakes, a group made up of musicians and explosive tap dancers who came to Harlem from Sierra Leone, London, South Africa, Greenwich Village, Madagascar, France, Jamaica and Hawaii. It’s old jazz and new funk on a bed of world music, delivered with the energy of James Brown; when he was a kid, Michael Mwenso was sometimes invited onstage by Brown to dance. 

The show starts at 7:30 p.m., tickets range from $28 to $50 and are available at artscenter@naz.edu or (585) 389-2170. There’s also a free pre-show talk with the artists at 6:30 p.m. in the Peace Theater in the lower-level Arts Center.

Doughty: The song’s familiar…

A whiff of nostalgia is nothing new in popular music. The list of artists reviving one of their classic albums and playing it in its entirety is a long one. Brian Wilson and “Pet Sounds.” Roger Waters and “Dark Side of the Moon.” Cheap Trick playing “Live at Budokan” live, that’s kind of a funhouse-mirror effect. And the idea is especially relevant today, after it once appeared that the very concept of an album was doomed by the market domination of digital downloading. But now we’ve seen a resurgence in vinyl records, which recently have been outselling CDs. The album, a complete collection of songs as curated by the artist, is back.

Mike Doughty is at Flour City Station on Saturday.
Credit Ben Staley

And so is Mike Doughty, who’s at Flour City Station, 170 East Ave., on Saturday to play a front-to-back version of his old band Soul Coughing’s 1994 debut, “Ruby Vroom.” We say “version,” because Doughty hasn’t been playing it note for note on this tour. The music of “Ruby Vroom” was from another time, Doughty says, and “there’s a whole other version of this record that lives in my head.” 

The sounds in Doughty’s head in ’94 were an inventive conglomerate of beat poetry, hip-hop and clever samples, but the band he’s had on tour with him – cello, bass and guitar – suggests he is indeed going elsewhere. The Ghost of Mr. Oberon opens at 8 p.m., unfortunately. We say “unfortunately” because the show’s sold out, so ask your friends how it went.

Kodak moments

Kodak Center, 200 W. Ridge Road, has been kind of an invisible venue, but recently it’s hit the accelerator on booking shows. Thursday, it has soft-jazz sax man Kenny G; Friday, it offers Bro Country star Kip Moore (his big hit was the genre-defining country love song “Somethin’ ’Bout a Truck”); and Sunday is Vince Gill (who, not incidentally, is one excellent Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabe guitar player, if you’ve ever seen him live). Gordon Lightfoot would have been there next week, on his 80th birthday tour, but he’s been rescheduled for June 4. Exercise can be bad for your health: Lightfoot needed surgery on a leg after tripping over a bench while working out at his home gym this summer.

Scott Weichman, 1958-2019

Scott Weichman.
Credit Provided by Bill Ribas

Scott Weichman was at the core of Rochester’s energized club scene in the ’80s. He was a bartender at the legendary downtown music club, Scorgies. And he was in a lot of bands that came and went through those clubs, most notably The Press Tones. 

His health had been a little shaky in recent years, and he was living with his mother when she found him dead at their Rochester home. He was 61. His friends will be gathering from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Miller Funeral Home, 3325 S. Winton Road, with a 4 p.m. memorial service at the Interfaith Chapel there.

A collective sadness settled over social media as word spread of Weichman’s death. But the overwhelming sentiment expressed was one that he worked hard to earn: Scott was a really nice guy.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.