by Sally McGraw
It is an unspoken rule that too many stars spoil a movie. You just know if the cast list includes more than four big names, it’s going to be a load of unwatchable dreck. This leads one to believe that performers can cancel out each others’ talent in collaborative situations. Yet the rule doesn’t apply across the artistic board. Sure, we’d love to eradicate the Traveling Wilburys from popular memory, but think of the Wu Tang Clan, the Buena Vista Social Club and Gorillaz. Unlike actors, groups of widely renowned musicians seem perfectly capable of complementing each other. In fact, talented musicians seem to bring out the best in other talented musicians. Throwing a group of amazing players on stage or into the studio can yield exceptional—and often unexpected—results. Such is the case with local gem Redstart.
Download an mp3 of Redstart’s song “Alien Day.”
brainchild of six-time MN Music Award-winning singer-songwriter Wendy Lewis
(Rhea Valentine, Mary Nail), Redstart’s lineup boasts some of the Twin
Cities’ most accomplished players. The rhythm section is comprised of
jazz innovator Michael Lewis (Happy Apple) on bass and local legend Martin Dosh
(Fog, Lateduster, Dosh) on drums. Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker (Mark Mallman,
Barbara Cohen) and horn player Greg Lewis (Marc Anderson, Cedar Avenue Big Band)
complete this musical dream team.
Redstart was never meant to be an ongoing project. In the summer of 2000, Wendy
was asked to perform at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. She’d been on hiatus a while,
so she hastily summoned up a cast of musical friends and loved ones for what
she believed would be a memorable one-shot deal. But the group she created had
such startling synergy that they agreed to continue working together. And although
fate was clearly a factor in Redstart’s formation, family ties also had
a hand in bringing these particular players together.
“Mike is my nephew, Greg is my oldest brother,” explains Wendy.
“But I like to avoid calling it ‘The Lewis Band’ because it’s
so exclusive. And it’s just not true.”
After that first fateful gig, it took about a year for the group to settle on
a name and begin gigging regularly. That kind of relaxed, organic movement is
at the core of everything Redstart does. It underlies their philosophy of musical
collaboration, supports their unorthodox recording and performing styles, and
imbues their mesmerizingly freeform sound.
“When I started playing with Redstart, we had maybe one or two rehearsals.
Then, all of the sudden, we had a show,” offers Dosh. “And that
sort of set the tempo for me to just get on stage and watch everyone to see
where the music went. It ended up working really well.”
“Plus that’s the way Greg plays, and it ends up bringing me and
Mike up,” continues Ylvisaker. “Because we usually prefer to have
written parts and know what’s happening. But it’s more fun like
this because you can bring whatever is going on with you to the gig and play
Many musicians are comfortable with improvised solos or even extended groove
sessions. In live performance, the overall sound of a particular song is often
influenced by individual band members’ moods. But Redstart takes it a
step further. The group’s collective musical mind can inform volume and
tempo choices, completely transforming the fabric of their compositions from
performance to performance. All of this is done without prior discussion; these
players are just all tuned in to the same frequency.
“The songs themselves are the same,” says Dosh. “The basic
components of the song—the vocal part, the key, the bassline. Tempos can
be completely different, though.”
“And density and aggression—that all changes,” adds Ylvisaker.
“We’ve done some shows that were really quiet, and some that felt
like full-on arena rock concerts all with the same songs. It just depends on
what mood everyone is in.”
“And I don’t think any of us have a problem with it,” Wendy
says, “because it just keeps working that way.”
Redstart recorded their current album, So Far From Over, in five days
at the Terrarium. Most tracks were nailed in a single take—a musical marvel
that was mostly made possible by vast amounts of talent, but also through the
band’s ability to jettison perfectionism in favor of intuition. If a take
felt right, they went with it—sometimes without even checking their work.
And although band members were keeping in mind that time is money in the studio,
none felt rushed or pressured. Instead Ylvisaker describes the compressed sessions
cool is that you have less time to make yourself into what you want to be. So
it’s honest. Whether or not you like yourself is your own problem.”
“I believe in that,” Wendy chimes in. “And yet there are amazing
records that have taken a really really long time to make. But maybe if it takes
a really long time, it’s the same thing because you end up kind of taking
everything away at the end.”
Ylvisaker concludes, “Either way it’s exactly something; it’s
exactly what you wanted it to be, or exactly what it really is.”
The fruit of those five days of labor is a rich, complex and intensely emotional
little album. So Far From Over encompasses a wildly varied mixture of
fury-fueled rock, trippy jazz and contemplative folk-pop that demands full listener
attention at all times. From the pleasingly dissonant hooks and glib vocals
of “I Don’t Know” to the slow grooves and eerie howls of “Stone,”
this group of songs transports the listener to a compellingly diverse and irresistibly
hypnotic landscape of passions and pains.
Each band member adds a layer of subtly skillful sound to that landscape. The
youngest Lewis proves himself a creative and adaptable bassist, especially for
someone whose specialty has long been the saxophone. Martin Dosh is inspired
and unpredictable on drums, punctuating each song with atypical but perfectly-fitting
percussion. Jeremy Ylvisaker layers on gorgeous distortion, drawing on a rich
palette of guitar sounds to create a sense of ebb and flow within each composition.
Jazzmaster Greg Lewis completes the band’s quirky sound with mournful
horn and flute accents.
But Wendy’s astonishing vocals take center stage on each and every track.
On “Alien Day” she strips her voice of character and vibrato to
create a quiet, focused, almost nostalgic sound. On “Speechless”
she veers from a restrained conversational patter to a ragged scream. On “The
Beating” every word she sings positively drips with searing contempt and
raw rage. If PJ Harvey took about 15 years of voice lessons, she might start
to sound like Wendy Lewis … but she’d never hold a candle to Wendy’s
vocal control and emotional range. This woman can reel her voice in close, or
spin it out into the stratosphere like a wildly veering kite. She can sound
like a timid child, a rabid animal or a gospel choir in rapid succession. All
this from a singer with virtually no training who didn’t start performing
until her early 30s—a self-taught songwriter who is only just learning
to play guitar.
“It’s my mom. I think I just have good genes,” claims Wendy.
“I had one semester’s worth of formal training, but I just couldn’t
stand it. And for years I was terrified to sing, which is weird because I grew
up in this musical family. My mom was trained at Julliard, Greg is a jazz musician
with a degree in music. But I was the black sheep. It took me a long time.”
Now that Wendy Lewis has found her voice—and helped build the supportive
and fruitful collaborative environment of Redstart—she’s not about
to keep quiet. She and her bandmates will continue to engage in feats of musical
telepathy onstage and off. And instead of relying on a rigorous rehearsal schedule
to keep them in synch, trust to fate.
“Any time I’m prepared to be disappointed because we didn’t
practice and I wanted to brush stuff up,” explains Ylviskar, “then
we play the best show we’ve ever done because we didn’t practice.”
It’s an anti-formula that hasn’t failed them to date, and they don’t
intend to change it. ||
Redstart perform on Fri. June 17 at the Cedar Cultural Center with the Bill
Mike Band, Annika-Bam. 8 p.m. All Ages. $8 student / $10 general public. 416
Cedar Ave. S., Mpls. 612-338-2674.
Find out more about Redstart on their official website at RedstartGo.com.
Head over to our mp3 page to download hundreds of songs, including Redstart's “Alien