ELLSWORTH – There’s a hubbub of cheerful chatter, and it’s difficult to make out what Celtic/rock contemporary/fusion musicians Carmel Mikol, Rachel Davis, and Darren McMullen are saying.
“We’re not even a band,” says Mikol, who adds, “We’re free radicals.” Or maybe it’s, “We’re three radicals.”
The three are scheduled to perform shortly at the home of house concert impresario Steve Peer. Peer lives at 430 Bayside Road in Ellsworth, and that’s what his living-room-based concert venue is called, 430 Bayside. At the moment, the living room, kitchen, and hallway are filled to the gills with 40 or 50 faithful attendees, who receive word of the latest musical act on tap through Peer’s email list, social media pages, and uneven attempts to remember to contact local newspapers for a calendar listing.
Mikol and Davis hail from Cape Breton, and McMullen from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in honor of their arrival, Peer has hung a maple leaf flag from the banister of his front porch. The flag gets a pretty fair amount of use, since many of his performers are from the Maritime Provinces, where Celtic music thrives, thanks to an immigrant heritage from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Cape Breton Island, on the northeast end of Nova Scotia, is considered an especially rich center of the genre, which is principally associated with the harp, bagpipe and fiddle.
Peer’s is a modest, nondescript rural home with a vast lawn that was once part of a farm field. A walk up the gravel path leads past the garage, where Peer’s MG-B sports convertible, its soft-top retracted, is serving as stowage for his signature red-and-white-striped bass drum, a style inspired by rock legend Keith Moon. Another bass drum shell and a bodhran hang from the garage wall. A spare snare shell sits atop a stack of plastic bins loaded with 45 RPMs. Speaker stands lean up in one corner. Several neatly wrapped caches of biobricks are stacked in the corner, with a metal instrument case on top.
In the entryway, Bob McCormick amiably greets all comers. A local schoolteacher, he can be seen at various Celtic programs performing the fleet-footed, stiff-armed step-dance associated with the music, and made famous by the theatrical show Riverdance. McCormick helps Peer organize the house concerts. In the beginning, the schedule was spotty. Now the venue has resolved into a regular stop on the tours of many of their music buddies from Canada.
Peer is stationed in the kitchen. Sitting on the counter are goblets and bottles of red and white wine. Peer has soaked off the original labels and printed custom legends for the band – which in this configuration is calling itself Roots to the Future – to glue onto the bottles, along with the band photo. There’s a sheet cake the size of a flatbed, to celebrate Peer’s birthday. Canapés include a plateful of 430 Bayside Veggie Bars, made from crescent rolls, Miracle Whip, cream cheese, garlic powder, dill weed, and cut-up veggies such as broccoli, red peppers, onions, or whatever you like. Peer has obviously been asked for the recipe many times; copies are neatly stacked next to the plate.
Set in place at the far end of the room are a mandolin, violin, guitar, keyboard, metal chairs, a stool, a chromatic tuner, multiple guitar picks, instrument lines, chord charts, and set lists. A stylistic illustration of a conga-player hangs on the wall over the set-up. A peek reveals that Set A includes tunes called Sprites and Good Luck, Over the Mountain, and Loch Loman. A couple of songs in Set B are Daughter of a Working Man and In My Bones. McMullen, who plays the greatest variety of instruments here, has annotated his list to help him remember which instrument to pick up for each tune – mandolin, bouzouki, tenor banjo, whistles, guitar, bass, bones.
“I don’t play fiddle,” says McMullen. “The reason why I have all these instruments is because if you don’t play fiddle at home, you have to play everything else.”
Before getting to work, Mikol, Davis, and McMullen are greeting people and enjoying a nip of wine.
McMullen nods his head toward the two women. “They’re the heart of the band.”
The three explain that they have their own individual bands, but they also like to get together with other musicians to perform and record. This particular group formation will last a week, and is just one of many creative endeavors each has pursued in recent months, among them tours in France, Ireland, England, Canada, and the United States. Just the previous week, each was in various rehearsals for different projects. As soon as this tour is out of the way, Davis heads into the studio to start another album.
“It’s fun,” says one through the hubbub.
“It can be grueling. Yeah,” agrees another.
The touring life usually consists of travel, sitting around during the day in a strange town, and whooping it up in performance at night. Musicians have to find ways to entertain themselves when they’re not entertaining others.
“We make up funny voices,” says Mikol. “Juvenile, actually.”
Like an inverse bed-and-breakfast where the visitor receives a paycheck at the end at the end of a stay rather than a bill, a house concert lands talent at a host’s home, usually as part of a larger tour. The talent is fed and cared for as an honored visitor. At the appointed hour, the audience shows up. Hosts generally have to do some furniture rearranging to create a performance space. Peer doesn’t have much in the way of fancy furnishings, so he just shoves his television back and fills the floor with folding chairs for the audience. The talent performs, then stays overnight. At Peer’s house, they sometimes stay longer, jamming through the weekend, sightseeing the area.
For touring musicians, Peer’s accommodations stand out.
“He has a great thing going, he really does,” says Mikol. “I play a lot of house concerts on my tours, and they all have their own personalities. This one is so open and fun, and it’s really a nice one to play. He just makes everyone feel relaxed. A lot of times, at house concerts, people don’t know how to act because they’re not in a formal concert setting, but they’re not just hanging around the living room, either, because it’s an event. Here, people know what to do.”
“It feels like it’s a normal thing here,” says McMullen.
“It feels natural,” says Davis.
The chatter quiets down as people take seats. The musicians make their way up front. McMullen tunes his mandolin. Davis tunes her violin.
“It’s a treat for us to be back,” says Mikol. “We’re going to be doing a bunch of original stuff, and some traditional stuff, and some stuff in the middle. So it’s going to be a fun night.”
Lights dim. Tiny rectangles of light appear above the heads of some audience members who deploy phone-cameras.
Mikol says that her work is representative of the new wave of Cape Breton artists, who integrate traditional music into their own styles.
There’s the song that Mikol and Davis wrote, about a man at the end of his life, looking back. It’s a lively, syncopated tune based on a wedding day jig composed by Cape Breton fiddling icon Natalie MacMaster and her fiddler husband Donnell Leahy. Davis wears flip-flops, which seems odd on a cool northern evening. It turns out that she manipulates the flip-floppiness of her footwear to keep a lively beat, as she slaps her feet on the wooden floor.
There are high-spirit tunes about filling cups and journeying off and back and finding love. The audience claps and cheers. From his latest album, McMullen and Davis do a fast-paced jig called Guitar, Fiddle and a Mic in the Middle with a flip-flop beat. The tune arose as the recording was made, a simple arrangement with no studio tricks, just Davis zipping along on her fiddle, driven by McMullen’s guitar. The two rock back and forth as the tune surges along.
Mikol shifts to keyboard to render a plaintive tune, accompanied by mooning bass and minimal fiddle, with lyrics based on a story she read in the internet archives of Cape Breton Magazine. A doctor who lived on the west side of the island, in the 1930s, traveled mostly by horse and foot to take care of people. His young son got very sick while he was out helping another family, and passed away. The next winter, he got a call from someone who lived across the mountain, and whose son was sick. The doctor set out with a couple of horses and a couple of helpers, in the middle of February, in the middle of a big storm. He struggled to get over the mountain, and it got so bad that the horses couldn’t go further. So he and his helpers walked. Conditions got worse and the helpers dropped back. The doctor struggled the rest of the way by himself, on foot. It took about 30 hours to get across the mountain, but he made it and helped that child.
Next on the set list is a song by McMullen. He stalls.
“Nothing makes Carmel’s voice sound quite so beautiful as listening to mine afterward,” he says. The audience chuckles.
Peer threads his way through the audience to hand McMullen a nerve-steeling, half-empty bottle of wine, left over from one of his previous visits.
Says McMullen, “If you ask any of the musicians from the Maritimes or anywhere in Canada that come down and do all these shows around Maine and New Hampshire, they will tell you that the coolest guy we know in the United States…” He indicates Peer. The crowd breaks out in cheers.
“The House That Rock Built” is the legend that Peer has adopted for his venue. In his initial years as an impresario, he went the usual route and rented a larger theater. But the scale of production involved to fill hundreds of seats proved to be time-consuming and expensive. So he lent his house to the vision.
Networked into a vast array of musicians, Peer had only to issue invitations. His venue has become a crossroad for musicians traveling through Maine between Canada and the U.S. The series features Celtic rock, folk rock/roots, and indie music. Concerts are generally scheduled for Monday evenings; the series runs through the year.
Local acts have included the acoustic/folk/rock group Stiff Whisker and the Driftwood Kids, “the trippy and most brave folk band in America, hands down!” and regional musicians Bobbi Lane, “the best folk singer in these parts,” and Katie Paquin, Trisha Mason, and Heather Hibbard.
Actually, Peer doesn’t like the word “local.”
“I avoid the word ‘local;’ it sounds like it’s nowhere,” he says. “’Regional’ is better. Did you ever call the Beatles a local band from Liverpool? Not really.”
Just a few of the acts from Canada, over the past couple of years, include the Juno award-winning, Newfoundland roots and contemporary Ennis Sisters, “the sweetest voices in all of Canada;” “monster” Cape Breton and Newfoundland players Dwayne Côté and Duane Andrews; dynamic emerging Celtic duo Cassie and Maggie MacDonald; and “tiny dynamo” Cynthia MacLeod, the Prince Edward Island fiddling sensation.
“This just in!!!” facebook friends learned of the arrival of Canada “fiddling sensation” Richard Wood with Gordon Belsher. “This will be an amazing ‘sold out’ show. When the show sells out, we will phone you. Call now. We do not want to make that phone call to you insiders on FB!”
Jenn Rawling, “a tree-climbing, fire-watching, pottery-making songstress” and “roving apothecary, gardener, seamstress, chef, bicyclist and painter extraordinaire” from Oregon, is announced on facebook, along with her partner and bandmate, Basho Parks, whose 26 years of string-playing spans symphonies, punk bands, bluegrass barn storms, roma-gypsy trios, organic electronica chamber music, and classic country.
And “now for a wild and woolie week of fantastic music….Put on your party hats folks and come on out…” is the communiqué on Ian Foster of Newfoundland, who swings through on his all-Maine tour of Celtic concerts from Calais to Farmington.
Hosting is fun, says Peer.
“They’ll say stuff like, ‘We could go play at an Irish festival in Kansas City with 10,000 people, but we would rather be here. We enjoy Steve, we get to ride around in his MG, we beat on his drumset, and stay out late in Bar Harbor. So you hear that and it’s, obviously, encouraging. So here, they’re showing up in my house, in my kitchen, entertaining me along with 40 other people. It’s like, ‘Gee, it’s a Monday night where I might be sitting here watching Two and a Half Men or something on television. And instead, I’ve got these guys in the house, 40 people laughing and having a great time.’ You know, you can’t go wrong.”
The endeavor suits Peer’s personality. He likes nothing better than to hang out with a bunch of musicians, try some new riffs, bang on his drums, crack open a six-pack, invite in some friends, get people laughing, and share a few tunes.
In the hallway, a hand-lettered poster with a couple of alien blob creatures, a row of spiraly suns, and a bright-orange Saturn advertises one of his own gigs back in 1990 – “Live at the Grant Theatre” with “Chicken Scratch Stumbling Way Chidy Ho and guests” for $5, with $1 of every ticket going to the local chapter of Amnesty International. Half a shelf of leftover CDs, called Shards, feature remastered songs from Peer’s early punk “no wave” band, TV Toy. Lined up neatly are vinyl albums of rock standards through the ages – Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Clash, et cetera., along with a pocket reference guide to more than 100 Beatles songs, a Sopranos trivia game for players age 18 and up, a box containing cymbal stand hardware, a half-dozen old tape reels, and a book on the life and times of Alice Cooper. Prominently displayed elsewhere, by itself, is a three-CD, one-DVD set of 81 Nirvana tracks, including 68 previously unreleased recordings, never-before seen footage, and a 60-page, full-color booklet. There is a biography of Courtney Love: Queen of Noise, Abby Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation, a record guide from Rolling Stone magazine, and two volumes about Jack the Ripper.
Peer got started in music at the age of 5, growing up in Dover, New Jersey.
“My dad dragged me up this driveway to his jazz drumming buddy that he worked with,” he recalls. “I was trying to grab onto this stone wall and I was crying. I was looking for some rock to grab onto and not go. My dad made me do it, and made me and made me. That’s what I tell the parents of my students, you know, just put him in the car and bring him down here.”
By the time he was 10, he started drumming as a kid novelty act in a big band that was run by his drum teacher’s father. He and some other kids got together and started their own band, The Roustabouts, to play old jazz standards and stuff by the Tijuana Brass.
Peer went on to become a presence on the New Jersey club scene. He formed and led garage bands and fusion-prog groups, and was greatly influenced by “glam rock” bands emerging from Los Angeles, New York and London. The original music of his band TV Toy was at the forefront of the new wave/punk movement and landed at top clubs such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City in the heart of Manhattan. He hung out with members of top bands such as Talking Heads, The Fleshtones, and The Ramones, drummed for Chuck Berry and shared the stage with the likes of John Cale, Southside Johnny, Blackfoot and Bill Bruford. All the while, the young man squeezed in the usual four years at college, on track to a degree in communication arts and filmmaking.
One time, when he was walking along the boardwalk in Asbury Park , New Jersey, he found out that the English progressive rock band Be-Bop Deluxe was playing nearby.
“They had guitar player named Bill Nelson who was a guitar god in England, and I thought, ‘What if Bill Nelson heard us? He’d probably produce us and make us famous.’ So I gave him a cassette and I got a call a month later from his management company for me to come in. They loved the band, but Bill was breaking up Be-Bop Deluxe and starting a new band called Red Noise” – a “synth-pop new wave” band – “and wondered if I would be interested in drumming. So now I was in a quandary. Well, of course, I went to England and gave it a whirl. After about a year, I came back to the states, kind of broke but sort of connected. TV Toy got back on track, but wasn’t making enough money, getting a little desperate.”
He decided it was time for a more conventional day job. Over the next four years, he taught at a school for emotionally disturbed children. On the side, he continued to produce bands and promote shows.
Then, fed up with rock and roll and the city, he sold every drum he owned and moved with his wife to Lubec, a town he knew as a sleepy little place from the vacations his parents took when he was a kid. No sooner did he arrive – he likes to say it was all of 15 minutes, but it was probably a couple of days – than there was a knock on the door. Two guys were looking for the drummer they heard had just rolled into town.
“They said, ‘We hear you play drums. We got a country band; do you want to play?’” Peer recalls. “They were really great. They had a band called Custom Made Country – not a very imaginative name, but they could play and sing better than most anyone I had ever heard.”
It was a strange but cool collaboration. Peer learned Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette and taught his new buddies all about The Ramones and The Smiths.
“We were a cow punk band,” he says. “Worlds collided, but it was a hot act that played every weekend through out Downeast Maine and Maritime Canada.”
Peer and his wife moved to Ellsworth, to be in a bit more of a suburban area, when they had their first child.
In 1989, he became the director of special education for School Union 93.
“When I write my book, I think I’ll have in my first chapter that being a director of special education is probably the closest thing to playing rock and roll in the normal world, because it’s just so wild,” he says. “I think they go together really well. That wild end of education really ties in nicely to rock and roll, lots of improvisation, lots of problem-solving, lots of drama.”
Looking to create and promote different, or at least more, music, Peer has kept a number of projects going. Among them was the label he started in 1993, Reversing Recordings, which has featured many Maine artists.
And there were plenty of sophisticated musicians who settled in the local area – folks happy to have a first-rate drummer. Now that Peer’s two daughters are grown, he plays with five bands. Most recently, he and some buddies started up the rockabilly The Crown Vics. There’s the blues band The Shambles and the “dance all night” northern soul band The Tumblers. The Larks continue to keep him the most busy with their quirky brand of “country western new wave disco punk.” His buddy, Doug Hoyt from Bangor, called and asked Peer if he was available to write and play original stuff. Peer didn’t hesitate, and signed on with Hoyt and bass player Mark McCall to become Spilled Milk.
“First and foremost, I’m a drummer,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to bust my butt and play drums a lot.’ So Frank [Schwartz of The Shambles, The Tumblers, Crown Vics, and whatever all else – also a multi-band person] and I got involved with his blues band. Their drummer had moved on. Then Frank and I got talking. He’s as crazy as I am; we talk over each other constantly. We said, ‘I always wanted to have a soul band.’ We said, ‘If we could do something like that, that would be fun.’ He goes, ‘I could do that. That’s close enough to blues.’ And I was still a little antsy; I’m kind of a sucker for original material. I always think I’m going to write a great soundtrack for the next James Bond movie.”
Peer gets modest. “I’m just the drummer. You couldn’t be a guitar player in four bands. That would be difficult. There’s a lot of chords and keys and notes. But drums are pretty simple.”
The house concert concept is his antidote to growing up. And he’s been having the time of his life.
“On Monday night? Having this much fun? It just isn’t right, you know?” Peer jokes.
He stops to give the matter some sober thought.
“Sometimes it’s work.” He pauses to think again. “When is it work?” He cheerfully gives up. “No, I guess it isn’t.”