Don't call Dave Gleason's Wasted Days "alternative country." The guys in the band don't like it. Alt.country is a broad and very trendy category that embraces Lucinda Williams and other folkies, as well as rockers like Wilco, Lambchop, or even a genuine honky-tonk offspring gone punk like Hank Williams III. But there ain't nothin' punk about guitarist Gleason's Bay Area quartet.
"I didn't come from any kind of a punk background at all," the 34-year-old picker says, following a Thursday night rehearsal that included a run-through of Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," a tune from which the band took its name. He prefers to call his music "California country," since most of his influences are from this state, be they the Buck Owens and Emmylou Harris country records he heard in his dad's record collection or the proto-surf Ventures tunes he played as a teenage drummer. With sunglasses perpetually perched atop his straight blond hair, which he cuts himself and combs downward Mr. Spock-style, the handsome guitarist has easily been mistaken on the street for an English rocker. His Durango cowboy boots are brown and made of snakeskin, topped off by burgundy, slightly bell-bottomed corduroys. And except for in the band's promotional photograph, he's seldom seen in public without a Western-cut blue denim jacket. Gleason's look, like his music, is a carefully constructed mosaic. "Alternative-country people were influenced by the punk rock movement," he says. "Then they heard Hank Williams and Merle Haggard one day, and something in that music touched them."
"Where we differ from alternative country is that we have a foundation more in the instrumental, technical side of it," says David Stark, who plays rhythm guitar in Wasted Days and blends his voice with those of Gleason and bassist Michael Therieau to create high lonesome harmonies that bring to mind the Everly Brothers. "We embrace the melodic, atmospheric parts of it." He thinks Gleason's awesome guitar chops clearly place him outside the alt.country realm. "What's nice about playing this music is that you can sing along with these songs. We're not trying to be alternative by playing country. We like playing country music."
Several nights earlier, the Starry Plough was packed for a CD release gig by Jill Olson. Stepping out of her usual role as bass player for the country group Red Meat, Olson was singing her own pop-flavored tunes with a band in which Wasted Days member Therieau plays rhythm guitar and adds expert harmony. Originally, Olson was supposed to close the show, but for whatever reason, she wound up switching slots with Gleason. Nonetheless, many of her fans stuck around to hear Wasted Days, along with guest pedal-steel ace Joe Goldmark, play a long set that juxtaposed heart-wrenching honky-tonk collaborations from the pens of Gleason and Therieau with rock-tinged renditions of Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues" and other country standbys. Drummer John Kent kicked a Zigaboo Modeliste beat behind "Elvira," reinventing the Oak Ridge Boys oldie with an unexpected second-line New Orleans twist, then segueing to a country bounce for the Charley Pride hit "(Is Anybody Goin' to) San Antone?" Rodney Crowell's "Ain't Livin' Long Like This" similarly melted into Slim Harpo's "Do the Hip Shake," a showcase for Gleason and Goldmark's fast-fingered prowess. James Carr's soul classic "The Dark End of the Street" got a plaintive bluegrass harmony treatment and moved seamlessly into Waylon Jennings' "Luckenbach, Texas."
Gleason's aching tenor voice slid across syllables, much in the manner he warped notes on his Telecaster by lowering and raising its neck to trigger a string-bending mechanism built into the guitar's body. Goldmark, a Bay Area country music veteran who years ago sat in with Gleason's dad's country band at the It Club in El Cerrito, added his steel to the twangfest, giving the band textures even more orchestral than its already-fat sound.
All through Gleason's set, Jay and Cat, a couple that regularly attends the band's Bay Area gigs, graced the Plough's dance floor with their Texas two-steps while less-experienced dancers attempted to keep up. Jay explained why he likes his music so much: "Mixing Bakersfield with the Rolling Stones is hard to imagine, but somehow he does it."
Dave Gleason was born in Milwaukee and moved to Concord when he was five. His father worked by day as a computer repairman in Richmond and by night as a guitarist in a country band called Rye Whiskey. For a period, his father's band worked five nights a week at the It Club, a place owned by Dot MacBeath, current manager of the Ivy Room, one of the clubs where Gleason's Wasted Days will be celebrating the release of its self-titled debut CD.
He took up drums when he was five, and at nine was doing gigs with his babysitter's band. "When I was a drummer, I was severely into the Ventures," he recalls. "They were my favorite of all time." He soon graduated to Led Zeppelin, and that band "just took over entirely. I got really into doing the John Bonham quick bass drum kinda drums, but then I started liking Jimmy Page and Robert Plant more than John Bonham, so I decided that I was going to learn to sing and play lead guitar."
Around the time he taught himself to play guitar, Gleason got a job at Rasputin Music in Pleasant Hill. Within a year, he was buying used records for the store, and for the past seven years he has done the same for Amoeba Music in Berkeley. "You gotta know what is good about every kind of music," he says. "I know good classical, I know good blues, I know good techno, I know good hip-hop. You've gotta constantly be on top of it. ... When people ask me 'How do you know what money to pay?' I basically say I have the whole store memorized, which is entirely true." The vast knowledge he's acquired from buying used LPs, 45s, and CDs has greatly contributed to his development as a musician. Much as he has maintained a database in his head for Amoeba's extensive inventory, Gleason has soaked up songs and styles like a sponge. He figures he knows at least two hundred songs well enough to perform in public, some eighty of which are in the Wasted Days' repertoire. Get him talking about guitar players and he'll tell you all about his many heroes, like Don Rich of Buck Owens' Buckaroos, Roy Nichols of Merle Haggard's Strangers, and Clarence White of Kentucky Colonels and Byrds renown, who all place high on the list. The string-bending mechanism Gleason uses to make his notes moan like those of a pedal steel -- the White/Parsons B-Bender -- was invented by White and onetime Byrds drummer Gene Parsons.
But any discussion of Dave Gleason's influences would be remiss without Gram Parsons. No relation to Gene, though also affiliated with the Byrds, Gram achieved major cult status following his 1973 heroin-overdose death at the Joshua Tree Inn in the Mojave Desert. The only cover song on the new record, "Funky String Quartet," was penned by Parsons, but is so obscure that most ardent collectors of his bootlegs have never heard it. Gleason says he's been sworn to secrecy as to its origin, but he can say that he got it off a crude demo tape that had been copied from the collection of onetime Parsons associate Emmylou Harris. "It's almost like an immediate selling point for our first record," he says of the song, referring to the myriad Parsons collectors that will buy anything and everything the California singer had a hand in. "You know -- 'Here's this band that I've never heard of, but I hear that there's an unreleased Gram Parsons song on there.' I know that I would buy it. I've got a Johnny Rivers album that's not very good, but it's got a Gram Parsons song on it that he never recorded himself."
Otis Redding's name may turn up in Parsons' "Funky String Quartet," but that's not the only connection to R&B in the California country music of Gleason's Wasted Days. Michael Therieau's syncopated Fender bass lines seem to reflect the pronounced influence of James Jamerson Sr., the Detroit bassist who propelled virtually every Motown hit of the 1960s. Therieau and drummer John Kent were both members of the Loved Ones, the now-defunct Bay Area blues and R&B quartet that cut two CDs for HighTone and garnered a fervent following in Bay Area clubs and beyond during the early '90s. The members' pretty faces contributed to the band's popularity, as did the fact that they didn't so much sound like white musicians trying to sound black, but more like whites trying to sound like whites in the '60s trying to sound black.
Before forming Wasted Days, Gleason, Kent, and David Stark were playing R&B and soul-jazz organ combo music with the Nick Rossi Set. "I wanted to further my education a little bit," says Gleason. "I got so hot on Booker T. and Jimmy Smith that I just wanted to play that stuff. We had a blast."
Early gigs by Gleason's band featured a similar repertoire of instrumental readings of soul and blues classics, but Kent and Stark had heard Gleason fooling around with some country songs at Rossi Set rehearsals and persuaded him to move in that direction. Therieau's gifts as a songwriting collaborator and his feel for country vocal harmonies made it all the more natural.
"There's a common thread that runs through all those styles," Stark says. "There's an absence of any kind of pretension. It's just honesty, whether it's country or soul music. I think that there's more similarity in an R&B or a country bass line than there is a difference. You can be 'in the pocket' in any style."
"We'll throw bluegrass harmonies on top of an R&B beat," interjects Kent. "But we're not consciously thinking we should throw a bluegrass harmony on top of an R&B beat."
"We live in a world where all this is out there," adds Therieau. "There are some people who paint themselves into such a small corner that they end up having to pretend that other things don't exist. It becomes a straitjacket, and they have no fun with making music anymore. It should be fun. It should be an enjoyable endeavor -- for us and for people who come and see us. If we're not having fun, I don't think anyone else will either."
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