August 16, 2007
John Reno & the Half-Fast Creekers' new album has eclectic mix of sounds
By LAWRENCE SPECKER
If you find yourself washed up on a beach with an array of flotsam and jetsam that includes an accounting degree, a tuba, University of Alabama football great Kenny ''Snake" Stabler and vague memories of playing tropical music in iced-up New England locales, don't be alarmed.
It isn't a dream. You've just wandered into ''Magic Chair," the new album from John Reno & the Half-Fast Creekers, accomplished purveyors of the musical genre known, at least to Jimmy Buffett fans, as ''trop rock."
Reno himself describes it as a mix of country, Caribbean, island and rock influences, depicting a laid-back lifestyle. The existential angst typical of singer-songwriters is in short supply here, though you rarely have to look far to find a drunken sailor.
There's an art to keeping things light, though, and Reno's rþsumþ makes clear that he did a lot more than just head for the nearest beach with a guitar over his shoulder.
Born in New Orleans, he played in rock bands and entered Loyola University as a music major. Daunted by the career prospects, he ended up taking a major in accounting - ''something I'm totally inept at," he confesses, years later.
After finishing college in the late '80s, his job search took him north, where he worked in Boston and various points in Rhode Island. On the positive side, he met his wife, Jane Veillon. (His full name is John Reno Veillon - pronounced Vay-yon - but he uses his middle name professionally because it requires no pronunciation guide.) On the downside, he learned that accounting covered a spectrum of jobs, and ''I found that I hated all of them," he said.
Fed up, he got the idea that he could make the same money as an entertainer, if he was professional about it. Soon he was playing acoustic classic rock in the college bars of Providence.
When playing ''Margaritaville," he made an interesting discovery: Those college crowds just couldn't seem to get enough Buffett. ''I didn't realize this guy was that big," he said.
Then he made another: There was a national college entertainment circuit, offering lucrative gigs to comedians and musicians who knew how to package their material. Soon he was out there with a show titled ''Pirates, Parrots and Margaritas."
Professionally, things were going well by '94. Personally, he was not so happy with his base of operations. ''My fascination with snow and cold weather soon waned," as he puts it.
He'd spent much of his childhood in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and he liked that seaside-village lifestyle. But he wanted to be someplace that was safe from storm surges. So he and his wife set out along a tour of the Gulf Coast, looking for someplace that had a small-town, distinctively coastal feel, yet was elevated enough to be protected from hurricane-driven flooding.
When they hit Fairhope, it was love at first sight, he said. They moved in 1995.
Business was good on the college circuit for a while, but a new force was taking over: hip-hop. Demand for tropical escapism was dropping off, and Reno was not a fan of the new stuff.
"You had to be screaming obscenities to a drum machine, and that just wasn't me," he said.
Happily, other avenues opened up. He made a connection with restaurateur Bob Baumhower, who booked him to play as many as five nights a week at Calypso Joe's, a venue he then owned in Orange Beach.
That and many other gigs went away after Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004. ''I lost a career for a while," Reno said.
But it wasn't enough to drive him away. For one thing, he'd made some sailing buddies and musical friends hanging around Fairhope's Fly Creek Cafþ: Dennis Gray and Kurt Schneider, who became known as the Half-Fast Creekers.
Schneider plays harmonica. And somewhere along the line, Gray acquired an old Soviet Union tuba, making for a truly unique sound. Later on, drummer Chip Collins joined in.
Finally, all the pieces were falling into place. (Though, when it came to the tuba's old rotary valves, they also tended to fall out of place during gigs. It has since been replaced by a slightly less archaic instrument.)
But about that tuba ...
"Why do we do it? Because it's fun," Reno said.
The ''E-flatulent horn" looks funny, and it sounds funny, he said. And even when the band isn't playing, it works as an advertisement.
"People stop and look, they laugh, and they say, 'Oh, I gotta hear this,'" Reno said. And on a more serious level, he just likes putting together sounds in unfamiliar yet appealing combinations.
The tuba definitely helps accomplish that goal. It lends a certain jauntiness that the electric bass doesn't have, and occasionally, as on the song ''Ono," Gray offers up an unexpectedly delicate solo.
Before the Creekers, Reno had two solo CDs - one of original music, one of covers aimed primarily at a tourist crowd. Now he and the Creekers recorded a live album, ''A Bona Fide Social Club," capturing their Fly Creek Vibe.
The stage was set for a proper studio album, and ''Magic Chair," recorded by Barry Little and Nomad Studios in Daphne, is it.
It's all there from the very first note: The tropical vibe, the tuba, and Stabler, who contributed some lines to the opening track, ''Heartaches and Hangovers."
Reno said the song came about through a chain of fortuitous circumstances. Baumhower, a Crimson Tide veteran, introduced him to the Crimson Tide fan base. This led to semi-regular gigs in Tuscaloosa, but more importantly, to a job entertaining on a Crimson Tide cruise where Stabler was one of the on-board stars.
They met in a bar during a stop in Belize, Reno said, which sounds like a pretty good song in and of itself. They got to talking about music, and Stabler gave him the seed of a song. Reno took it from there, adding lyrics and setting it to a bluesy yet bouncy tune.
That leads into the steel drums and tuba of ''Magic Chair," an escapist romp from songwriter Del Suggs about the joys of getting home and settling back into the seat that ''sits on the beach and it takes my cares away."
The steel drums, incidentally, are the work of Mark Mireles, one of two ''hired guns" who play on the album. The other is guitarist Brett Gambino.
"Brett is a phenomenal guitarist and I had to bring him out of retirement for that," Reno said. ''Which was no small feat, I might add."
From ''Magic Chair" it's on to a series of songs whose titles chart the trop-rock landscape: ''Timothy's Bar & Grill," ''Summer Love" and the pun-laden ''I Lobster But Never Flounder."
Reno said he doesn't sit down to write genre songs. But he draws on his own experience and ''tries to write about things people relate to."
"You play enough of that music, you can't help but be influenced by it," he added.
So yes, a song like ''Labrador Logic," off the live album, is on the light side. After all, it was inspired by observing his dog's thought processes.
But then again, it's a song about learning to live in the moment.
And escapism has its value. Reno said it's not unusual for him to get winter emails from people far from the coast, who say his beach songs have lifted their snowbound spirits.
"That hits me really big," he said.
Perhaps the only fly in the ointment, these days, is that only about 10 percent of Reno's gigs feature the band. The other 90 percent are solo, mostly at coastal and Causeway bars and restaurants.
He wishes the percentages were the other way around, but economics and scheduling logistics are tough to overcome. He's grateful for the occasions the Creekers can get together.
"I'm fortunate that Dennis is retired and Kurt is semi-retired," he said.
Reno lists dates at www.johnreno.com and www.myspace.com/johnrenomusic; Felix's fish camp is his closest regular stop to Mobile. Albums also can be purchased through the johnreno.com site.
The lesson of Reno's career seems to be that escapism, like most any work, benefits from diligence and business sense, even if you're good at making it look easy.
"If you're going to do this for a living, and if you enjoy the creature comforts of life," he said, ''You've got to have a certain sense of responsibility."
Still there are certain enviable fringe benefits, some of which are most evident when playing for vacationers who wish they didn't have to go back to the grind.
"I've had 'em walk up to me and go, 'This is what you do?'" he said.
"I do this full time, and this is what I do."
BUY IT NOW
John Reno & the Half-Fast Creekers' album ''Magic Chair," recorded by Barry Little and Nomad Studios in Daphne, is available now. For information on shows, visit www.john
reno.com and www.myspace.com/johnrenomusic; Felix's fish camp is the group's closest regular stop to Mobile. Albums
can be purchased from www.john
G.M. ANDREWS/Staff Photographer
G.M. ANDREWS/Staff Photographer
John Reno & the Half-Fast Creekers perform July 21 at Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile.
Lawrence Specker - Mobile Press Register (Aug 16, 2007)