Len's Lounge rocks. I dedicate that sentence to the brainiac who once told Jeff Roberson, guitarist and principal singer/songwriter of the Country/Folk/Rock sextet, that his band didn't. Indeed, this band rocks with a quiet edginess that's loud on a more important level. In the band's music, you'll hear essences of storytellers with an edge. Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, you know the list: the fringe songwriters whom audiences never found acceptable until an acceptable songwriter said it was OK.
Alongside Roberson in Len's Lounge is upright bassist Paul Cavins, violinist Annette Christianson, guitarist Toby Ellis, drummer Michael Horrigan, and mandolin player/singer Ann Winslow. As previous line-ups have come and gone, Roberson remains the constant. There have been as many as six players, and as few as two, but the names of past and present Len's Lounge members are known to supporters of Cincinnati-area music (bassist John Curley and drummer Tony Franklin, to name only two).
You'll find two LPs and a seven-inch single in the Len's Lounge discography, with originals such as the tight, tornadic "Whirl." Live, this band sears as Johnny Cash with his classic Tennessee Two did (the band does a great "Hey, Porter"), with a bit more instrumental firepower. Roberson is just as hot-to-the-touch solo acoustically, where his stories are delivered with the fervor — not the volume — of mid-'80s L.A. Hard Core Punk.
Roberson, a former street performer, spoke with me at the Len's Lounge rehearsal space. With its decor of musical instruments and auto parts big and small, it resembles Bob Dylan's Big Pink (the band does a great "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight") had he been into BMW motorcycles. There we discussed Nick Drake vs. the Volkswagen Golf, the recent increase of activity for Len's Lounge and the current musical climate in which the band plays.
CityBeat: One name: Nick Drake. Go.
Jeff Roberson: Not any bad songs there. Lots of gems to cover. We do "Pink Moon." Now everybody knows "Pink Moon" from the Volkswagen commercial. I can guarantee you, nobody listening to me playing "Pink Moon" is going to say, "Was he just playing 'Pink Moon'?"
CB: I'd like to debate with you about those Volkswagen Golf commercials. Honestly, I had never heard of Nick Drake until last year. I saw the commercial, then my brother-in-law played the Pink Moon CD for me. He had never heard of him until he saw the commercial. Then he heard a feature story on National Public Radio. Now he owns Pink Moon, and my 3-year-old nephew plays in the living room with it on the stereo. In a perfect world, everyone's nephew is playing in the living room with Pink Moon on the stereo.
JR: It's not really about it being a perfect world. I would point out that Nick Drake rarely made money from his own recordings. I don't know who owns the rights to his songs, but I highly doubt it's benefiting his estate or songwriters in general. Given the history of Volkswagen as a corporation (with ties to Nazi Germany), and what Pink Moon does to increase sales ... it would be okay if your brother-in-law never heard that song. I hate to say that. I understand your point. Maybe you're right.
CB: It's just that Nick Drake is one of the good guys. You're one of the good guys.
JR: Nick Drake is one of the good guys that got ate-up by a system that continues to exploit his music.
CB: The Len's Lounge lineup has stabilized, the band is performing more frequently, the rehearsal space is up and running. You seem to be moving in a positive direction these days.
JR: The way it works is you put a band together, and they gel. This band is starting to gel right now, which is really nice. You're right, right now it's really coming together. But three years ago when it was me, Tom Callahan on bass, John Renner and Chris Carero on guitar, and Chris Brown on drums, that was a rock-solid lineup for three years. We played bars because we weren't welcome in clubs.
CB: You've mentioned to me before that what's happening with Len's Lounge now reminds you of 1987. What made that year cool for you and the band?
JR: Len's Lounge wasn't around then, but to me, when I moved to this town in late '85 from living in the back of my van in Rochester, N.Y., it just seemed so wide open. New Wave was dead. Punk music was definitely still smoldering, but it was only underground, all those L.A. bands. The local scene was just a bunch of people doing a whole lot of different stuff. You had Doc and the Pods doing Surf-Pop, the Afghan Whigs inventing something totally new and Liquid Hippos, who were a grungy Pop band. None of the music was really very similar. People were more than happy to share gigs with you, regardless of the style, as long as it was done honestly and with conviction. That's what it feels like now, I guess. There are all of these bands now, all a little bit different, and they're all not haggling over door fees, and stuff that years down the road no one's going to give two pisses about. (laughs) There were some lean years where Len's Lounge really didn't fit in very well and, quite frankly, didn't feel very welcome, either. But we certainly do now.
LEN'S LOUNGE plays Saturday at the York St. Café with The Stapletons. For more information on the band, visit lenslounge.com.