There is a legend surrounding the fortune of Boston garage-blues duo Mr. Airplane Man that goes something like this: The late Mark Sandman, frontman for Beantown favorites Morphine, discovered them playing for rent money in front of a liquor store in Cambridge. Despite their limited means -- Tara McManus was banging a five-gallon drum while Margaret Garrett played her Kay guitar through a battery-powered amp -- the racket they made was so potent that Sandman took them under his wing and swept them off to the blues mecca of Memphis to record an album.
As blues mythologies go, the story doesn't have the haunted romance of Robert Johnson bartering his soul with the devil at a crossroads. But it has nonetheless stuck, even though it contains only grains of truth.
"I don't know how that myth got going," Garrett says. "I think it's a combination of several different stories. But I'll tell you the truth and you can do what you want with it."
The truth goes more like this: Garrett and McManus met when they were ten years old at a girls' camp in New Hampshire where they spent their summers. The two shared an obsession with music that had been ingrained in them by their parents -- Tara's parents were blues fans, while Margaret's liked jazz. In their teens, they formed an almost sisterly bond, spending weekends club-hopping, attending Boston's all-ages punk shows.
But by the mid-'90s, their paths had diverged. Garrett was fronting a band in Massachusetts while McManus was off studying African drumming in Pittsburgh.
That's when Sandman intervened in their fate. Garrett had befriended him after approaching him at a Morphine show and asking for guitar lessons.
"I'd go over to his really cool loft-space flat," she says. "We'd listen to music and get stoned and go out to eat, and occasionally he'd actually show me some guitar chords. But it was mostly a hanging-out session, kind of 'How to turn on to music.'"
One of the artists Sandman turned her on to was Howlin' Wolf. Though his ragged blues sounded a world away from white-bread New England, Garrett immediately connected with the raw performances and downtrodden stories.
"It sounds pretty clichéd, but the blues come from a painful, difficult place, and that's something I always related to," Garrett says with a hearty laugh. "Being the sad, anxious person I was growing up, I definitely responded a little bit more to something that was coming from a place of loneliness or pain. It doesn't really move me to pick up a guitar when I'm overwhelmed with joy."
It was also Sandman who convinced Garrett to look outside of Boston for new bandmates, a move that led her to reunite with McManus. Taking their name from the title of a Howlin' Wolf song, and fueled by a passion for Fat Possum artists such as T-Model Ford, and a host of 1960s garage bands, the duo started playing the streets of Massachusetts, eventually taking their swampy hybrid sound through a tour of the South.
On the way back from a show in New Orleans, Mr. Airplane Man stopped in Memphis to record Red Lite. Produced by '68 Comeback's Jeffrey Evans, the album mixed covers and originals in a murky soup of rock and blues played with punk swagger. Though it was an interesting template for what was to come, it revealed a band with a lot of cool influences still struggling to assimilate them.
The pair's current release, Moanin', however, hits much closer to the mark. Again mixing covers like Howlin' Wolf's "Commit a Crime" and the traditional spiritual "Jesus on the Mainline" with Garrett originals, the album presents a more primal version of garage blues. Her circular one-string riffs and bottle-slide sounds intertwine with McManus' hypnotic tub-thumping to conjure all kinds of Delta hoodoo. And producer Jeff Diamond (White Stripes, Mooney Suzuki, Andre Williams) helps them overcome the shortcomings of Red Lite by bringing cleaner production, while still keeping the performances loose and gritty.
Despite the album's immediate charms, though, Mr. Airplane Man seems to get more attention for its apparent similarities to another blues-loving guitar-and-drum duo, the White Stripes. It hasn't been helped by the fact that the album was recorded in the Stripes' home base of Detroit and that the bands have toured together. "[Critics act] like they invented the genre and we're trying to cash in on it," McManus says. "That's really annoying."
Again, the truth is far less contrived.
"We never planned to be a guitar-and-drums duo," Garrett says. "We're just two best friends and our world has always been kind of exclusive. Not by choice, but because here's these two really intense friends that for a very long time felt like the rest of the world didn't understand them. We're just two geeks who bonded."
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