My first exposure to Crazy Chester came this summer at the Mad Frog. Nursing what I thought was my last beer, an ex-bandmate and I were discussing future musical endeavors out on the patio. As a huge fan of The Band, and as someone who'd just invested in his first keyboard, my new model involved a strong piano/organ presence, a more relaxed style of songwriting and a whole lot less loud, distorted rhythm guitar.
As we spoke, sound was wafting outside. Bass-first, groovy, and up-the-neck, sounding like every great slow record from '68-'73, we then could hear the keys, majestic and classic sounding. And suddenly it was time to get back in there. Before us was Crazy Chester, looking every bit the part of a throwback Blues band. Their tunes were their own, but elements of the Stones, Tom Petty, Traffic and others were evident. As we stood, barking into one another's ears in growing appreciation, they began to play Blind Faith's gorgeous "Presence of the Lord." Five minutes later I had a new band to follow.
It turns out that lots of people already knew these guys — or at least singer Lee Gallagher, bassist Jason Randall, and pianist Earl Phenix — from their last band, Mr. Scarlet's Plume, their project since junior high.
"We had a great fucking time with that band, had a lot of weekly gigs, so along the way we kinda became a cover band, doing old Blues songs, some Allmans, Zeppelin, the Band," remembers Randall. "But we had a sense for a long time that we weren't gonna go anywhere."
Not wanting to end up as 35 year olds (gulp) playing in a bar band, the Plume's enthusiasm began to wilt. They'd used their experience to hone their skills, but they had a need to satisfy their own artistic desires, so the blueprint for Crazy Chester was laid.
"We wanted to focus on our own stuff," offers the suitably-named Gallagher. "We thought we were Rock stars at 16, and there's never been anything else we wanted to do. I started playing guitar, and writing a lot of tunes. We just needed a drummer and a lead guitarist."
Enter Jim Tobias, ex-Shag/Freekbass drummer, and guitarist Scott "Snake" Miller. By May of this year, Crazy Chester had all the pieces in place. The new band has returned to some of its old haunts, but finds itself playing for new people. The passion has returned, stronger than before, and the band is now in the studio for the first time.
"We're still at the beginning stages of the recording," starts Lee, "so we don't know exactly how it's going to go. But we have a great situation where we're not under the gun, time-wise, so we really want to take time to experiment, and to look at things differently."
"We have freedom," adds Randall. "We already know we're a good live band, but we want to learn, and see what we can do to become a good studio band."
The band expects to expand on what they do live, by adding background vocals, and bringing in guests to play things like pedal-steel guitar.
It sounds like an ideal arrangement. These guys have years of experience developing their chops in smoky bars, soaking in the lessons of Rock's pioneers by osmosis.
In addition to their abilities, they have a burning desire to excel and to push themselves. Randall was so mesmerized by Mojo magazine's Top 100 albums of all time list that he disappeared for over an hour behind it.
And — this is important — they've got a great frontman in Lee, who can absolutely pull it off: rail thin, sleepy blue eyes, stage presence and a sweet, high-pitched singing voice that comes complete with a vibrato that is all his own.
Yessiree, seasoned bar band, newfound devotion to songwriting, freetime in a cool Bluegrass studio and a poster-worthy lead singer. Doesn't even sound fair, does it? It gets worse.
Earl blasts his Fender Rhodes piano through a big old Marshall guitar amp, raising an unholy ruckus not unlike Deep Purple, and Snake's guitar seems capable of reanimating every screaming solo from the Blues Rock archive. See, it's not all about four-minute songs with nice backing vocals — these guys still know the value of blowing the roof off.
It will come down to the songs, in the end. Crazy Chester — whose name comes from the "Crazy Chester" verse in The Band's "The Weight," the only one sung by Rick Danko — is shooting for a springtime release of their first CD. Without great songs, it'll be a Blackfoot record, or a Crazy Horse record that no one hears, but the potential for greatness is here.
I've seen them a few more times since my introduction, and their tunes are becoming more familiar. Lee sings one about Joshua Tree, the final resting place of legendary country rocker Gram Parsons, and they've got one called "Something to Say," that becomes a jump-off point for one of their colossal lead organ/lead guitar jams. The songs evoke all of the artists name-checked herein, and so it's with starry eyes that Crazy Chester takes aim at Rock's pantheon.
"There is just no substitute for doing what you want ," says Lee, explaining what's fueled his recent burst of songwriting. "I just want to feel proud of what I do."
CRAZY CHESTER will be taking a break from recording to play Dec. 23 at Millions Café in Mount Lookout.