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Verbow - The Second Chance Encore Print E-mail
Written by and photos by CHRIS CASTANEDA   
Thursday, 20 May 2010
After moving his family into a new home in Evanston, Jason Narducy eventually took on the familiar task of tackling the messy basement. Box after box filled with tapes, CDs, posters and musical equipment represented just small portions of his musical life. All Narducy hoped to accomplish was to create some space and order. Instead, the singer/songwriter heard his past calling out to him in the sounds of Verbow.


Chicago, IL
May 15, 2010

Narducy had come across old recordings of his former band that were sitting in silence among his many boxes. Two particular recordings, both from Schubas, immediately grabbed his attention—a 1998 performance recorded for WXRT’s “Sunday Night Concert” series and a 2001 show. He took the recordings to a friend’s house, selected the best six songs from each show and developed a mock-up live album. The end result was Verbow – Live At Schubas. With a rekindled appreciation for his former band, Narducy began to entertain the thought of performing again. This meant reaching out to his friends David Suycott (drums), Lennie Dietsch (bass) and Alison Chesley (cello). “I checked in with everybody, and everybody was excited,” says Narducy about members’ reaction to the idea.

The quartet reunited for a sold out show at Chicago’s Schubas this past Saturday night. It had been eight years since Narducy, Dietsch and Suycott last played together as Verbow. Chesley goes back almost seventeen years with Narducy when they were an acoustic duo simply known as Jason & Alison. “In a way, I feel really bad that Verbow didn’t make it, because I think it deserved to,” says Chesley with a slight sigh in her voice.

“I lost my vision with Verbow,” says Narducy about the band’s dissolution in 2002. “I was unclear as to what I wanted to do. I think the clearest vision I had was when Alison and I were playing acoustic. For me, it felt invigorating to walk on stage with Alison and know that what people heard that night—whether they liked it or not—was unlike anything else they were going to hear. We basically took two wooden instruments and presented them in a very loud wall-of-sound way. I think musically I would have been better to stick with that, but I got the itch to have there be a band. That was fun, too. We got to do some pretty special things with that, but it was much more original to have it just be Alison and I. When Alison wasn’t in the band anymore and the band was continuing on there were some nice moments, like the last six songs on this live record. It just sort of ran its course.”

Following Verbow, Narducy attempted another project called Rockets Over Sweden in 2003 with Suycott and Eddie Carlson (Poi Dog Pondering, Frisbie). A six-song EP titled Penny Coliseum was later released in 2004. The trio actively performed around Chicago, but the band’s run would be short lived. “I needed to start over,” says Narducy. “Rockets Over Sweden was pretty different in that it was the keyboard as bass and a little bit more spit on the concrete-type rock. That was fun, too, but it was also more work than I wanted to put into. Also, it was not as clear of a vision. It was a little bit of a wrestling match. There were times when the band hit its stride, but most of the time we were trying to find how we could make sense of it.”

Before orch-pop ever entered the musical lexicon, Verbow was a band unlike any other in Chicago during the late 90s. What began as an acoustic duet would evolve into a sonic-pop explosion that matched the pop sensibilities of Material Issue with the guitar thrust of Sugar. It was at a café in Evanston called the Bean Counter where Narducy, the “long-haired musician,” would come to meet Chesley, a Northwestern graduate student studying for a music degree. While working together they developed a friendship through similar musical tastes like Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Cheap Trick and The Who. Growing up in Los Angeles, Chesley took up the cello at the age of eight and entered the world of classical music. Narducy was already in a punk band called Verboten when he was ten years old. Their friendship would further grow from playing music together as Jason & Alison. “I think she played four songs with me at an acoustic show at Elbo Room,” recalls Narducy. “I did original songs by myself, and then the last four songs she came up to join me. It just felt right. In retrospect, it’s sort of amazing how quickly that whole thing took off. I think Alison and I first played together in November of ’93, and a year later we had a record out [Woodshed]. We started to tour with Morphine, Liz Phair and Bob Mould. It was really fast.”

Narducy continues, “It wasn’t for everybody. We certainly weren’t welcomed by the folk fans. We would sometimes mistakenly get booked into a folk room, and we were not appreciated (laughs). We belonged in rock rooms. Jonathan Richman screamed at us once saying we were too loud.”

Bob Mould was already a figure of respect and admiration to Narducy and Chesley. Narducy had come to know Mould by showing up early to his shows, bringing local press clippings written about the artist. Mould’s musical influence on Narducy was quite evident to Chesley by the way he would approach his own work. “I liked how he saw that the cello could be more percussive,” says Chesley. “He was listening to Workbook, and the way Bob [Mould] wrote for the cello on that album was different than you usually hear cello. It wasn’t just pretty background stuff. It was just Jason’s voice, his guitar and my cello. So, there was a lot of opportunity to fill up the sound. I could play melodic stuff, but I could also play really powerful chordal stuff. I felt his music was very energetic.”

Narducy, admittedly a fanboy, never felt completely ready to share his demos with Mould whenever the two crossed paths. It was through Jam Productions, the Chicago-based concert promoter, that Jason & Alison were suggested to Mould as an opening act for a three-night stand at Metro in 1995. Having watched the duo from the second level of the club, Mould knew he saw something special. “Jason has a great voice,” says Mould. “He’s a good musician and very good student of rock/pop music. You can really tell by listening to his work. Alison is a great cellist as well. Around the late 80s, I’d been doing a lot of work with acoustic guitars and cellists in my own stuff. So, they caught my ear.”

Mould would retain Jason & Alison as his opening act for a stretch of shows on his ’95 tour. Not long after, Mould offered to produce an album with Narducy and Chesley. Mould had already accumulated tons of experience as a producer with Hüsker Dü, Sugar and his solo work. According to Mould, Narducy and Chesley were more than ready to enter the studio. “Jason was so prepared,” says Mould. “He had clearly been doing a lot of recording at home over the years and understood how to prepare for a studio session. It was pretty effortless. It was myself and Jim Wilson, my longtime engineer in Austin. The process went really, really quick. I remember with Alison it was maybe a little bit more difficult. The cello, like the voice, is an instrument that wavers in pitch. It’s not fixed in pitch like a guitar. Once we got Alison into a space where she was comfortable playing, it went very quickly.”

“He was great,” says Narducy. “He was really supportive. He was very clear about the approach to the recording, from a technical standpoint. He was more about the recording, and he felt the songs were there. He really liked to bang it out. I think we did everything in twelve days, whereas White Out was closer to two months.”

Says Mould about making Chronicles, “They were really good sessions. I didn’t feel like I had to do a lot of deconstructing and reconstructing of song ideas. We were crafting a pop record; we weren’t documenting a new band. They’re very different things, and it was quite an easy record to make. All the choices were pretty clear. It was a great record, and I think it captured the songs really well. I thought the performances were pretty tight, and I think we got the best results we could.”

What started out as a Jason & Alison project developed into a fully realized band album, and that new band suddenly needed a name. “My middle name is VerSchave, which is a French name, and then the ‘bow’ part is a reference to the strings,” says Narducy. “Everybody liked the feel of it except for the radio department at Sony, who were really adamantly against it. Being a twenty-six-year-old kid, I just said, ‘Well, that’s the name of the band.’ It’s not really a great story. I started to make up wild stories about the name of the band (laughs). If you fish around the Internet, there are some pretty funny ones.”

The band toured heavily in support of Chronicles, with Mark Doyle on drums and Luke Rothschild on bass, before beginning work in 1999 on the follow-up album, this time with Rockford native Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Veruca Salt) as producer. White Out took on a heavier edge compared to its sharp debut companion, but the maturity gained from the constant touring made the band stronger on record. The sophomore effort posed bold ideas from a band thirsty to explore its potential in the studio, but some of those ideas took longer to come to fruition than others. “We took two days just to mix ‘New History,’” says Narducy. “By the end of the second day, they were calling me into the room to listen. I’d listen and then say, ‘I don’t know anymore.’ I’d been listening to the song for two days and totally lost perspective on it. That’s not a slight on Brad Wood. It was a complex, layered, dense record to make, which is sort of what we were going for. On Chronicles, there’s only one cello, maybe two cellos at a time. For a song on White Out, there were eighty cellos.”

Over the course of 2000, Verbow steadily toured, but record sales were not mirroring the positive critical responses the band had garnered over two albums. The height of the 90s rock boom had begun to slip away from the spotlight, soon to be replaced by the prepackaged bubblegum pop of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. Bands that were once allowed the time to grow over the course of three to four albums had to suddenly deliver with track one or pack it up. Artistic promise became an office expense that the labels grew less interested in supporting unless the marketing campaign guaranteed an instant success. For Verbow, that meant being dropped by the label shortly after the release of White Out.

By March 2001, Chesley made the decision to step away from Verbow and the music she helped create with her friend for over eight years. “It was stressful,” says Chesley. “We were touring, and the label wasn’t supporting us. We were very lucky that we were doing tour support. I remember checks always being late, and it would be stressful being away from home, especially when things aren’t going well. I’m sure it was very hard on Jason. It was hard for me, because I feel like I had so much invested in my cello that I felt like I had given a lot my life and time to this band. It was just a hard time, and I wasn’t handling it very well. In retrospect, I wish I handled it better, but I’m really glad right now we’re able to be friends. Jason has meant a lot to me. He’s like my brother.”

Life has gone on since Narducy and Chesley sought separate musical paths from each other. Chesley has carried on a solid solo career under the name Helen Money and has often appeared with Poi Dog Pondering. Narducy reunited with Mould in 2005 when asked to join Mould’s touring band on bass, which later opened the door to work with another gentleman, Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard. Narducy remains an active participant in the musical worlds of the two Bobs.

The reunion has sparked Narducy’s desire to write music and possibly record an album, but not under the Verbow name. For now, the sold out show will be a one night only deal, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of future work. “I really enjoy playing with these guys and their company,” says Narducy. “It’s been a treat to spend time with some old friends and revisit these songs that were a huge part of my life, ten years ago, twelve years ago, but it’s not something I want to put a ton of energy into. There are some pretty good sounding live recordings of the duo [Jason & Alison] that I wouldn’t discount putting out a live record of the acoustic shows, and maybe Alison and I do a show in the fall. That’s not to say if somebody asked us to do a [Verbow] show that we’d be interested in, I’d be happy to call everybody up and see if they wanted to do that. I think right now it’s just, ‘Hey! Let’s get the band back together, play a great venue in Chicago and have fun for a night.’”

If this is to be Verbow’s only time on a stage together again, then it certainly serves as the best send off the band never had eight years ago. “It’s definitely really touching and moving to know that so many people want to come see the band,” says Chesley. “It’s a validation of Jason as a songwriter and musician. It’s nice to have a second chance to come back and play with each other, again.”

May 15, 2010 may have been just another day in people’s lives, but, for Verbow fans, it was an evening when they got to have one of their favorite bands back.

After a well-received opening set by former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard, the packed room buzzed with anticipation as the set time grew closer. From atop a rigged podium near the back of the room, Narducy stood like Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and launched into a pulsating riff. As if announcing the starting lineup for the Chicago Bulls at the United Center, Narducy introduced each band member to the stage.

Once Chesley, Dietsch and Suycott assembled, all four locked into the riff Narducy started, which then led into the show’s opener, “Dying Sun.” From that moment on, Verbow tore into a scorching two hour set that was unstoppable. The opening barrage exploded with “I’ll Never Live By My Father’s Dreams” and “Corner Bending” off White Out. The raw melodic drive of “Holiday” and the sinister testimony of the disenchanted super fan in “Fan Club” had clearly not faded away since Chronicles. The counterbalance between Dietsch and Suycott was in full force, while Chesley’s sense of mood and tone scored on songs like “Closer to Free.” One particular gem that stood out in the set was “Savior’s Line,” a song from the Chronicles era that was never recorded and had the added bonus of drummer Mark Doyle joining the band for an inspired rendition.

Verbow had nothing to prove to the audience or themselves on stage other than to have fun. The loose atmosphere throughout the night seem to fuel the band members to play as freely as they could, which were evident in “Lethargy’s Crown,” “The Chronicles of Agent Kidd” and “New History.” Chesley had a moment to shine as she conducted her way through a swarm of foot pedals, creating a dense wave of sounds emanating from her cello, like listening to Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page deliver one of his famous violin bow guitar solos. The band brought the night’s celebration to an end with raucous versions of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” joined by Gillard, and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” The sold out crowd roared its appreciation as the band departed from the stage. After eight years, Verbow clearly still meant something, and its music was more than just a memory.

To order Verbow: Live at Schubas, e-mail a request to ($10 + $2.50 postage/U.S.)

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I would love to see Lumino feature