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Aztec Two-Step a classic duo returns to Maine

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It was a chance meeting that brought Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman together 43 years ago and a friendship built on mutual respect for their music and audience that keeps them together today.

Fowler and Shulman, of acoustic folk-rock duo Aztec Two-Step, will bring their 'Classic Duos' concert to Maine on Friday, Nov. 21 at Portland's One Longfellow Square. 'We'll be having some fun with the music of our predecessors,' Fowler says.

During the concert, Aztec Two-Step will honor the songs of Simon and Garfunkel and The Everly Brothers. 'We'll throw in a little Chad & Jeremy and Peter and Gordon as well,' Fowler told me. The evening will also include songs drawn from the duo's own extensive catalog dating back to their 1972 debut.

'The first two or three albums are the foundation of our career,' Fowler continued. 'People who saw us and bought the records back in the '70s, expect to hear a lot of those songs. Because of that, the songs have also become by our criteria our own standards.'

After finding each other at an open mic in a Boston coffee house in the Spring of 1971, Fowler and Shulman staked out a spot in New York City's Central Park and began playing mostly original songs. They noticed that other busking musicians were mostly playing covers and collecting far more money, but the pair remained undeterred.

Rex and Neal's decision to focus on their own songs ultimately landed them a production deal, a demo and a record contract with Jac Holzman and Elektra Records.

An early believer was Elektra A&R rep, Ann Purtill. 'Rex says that the first time he heard Neal lay a harmony on one of his lyrics, he felt like he died and went to Heaven and I think I felt the same way,' Purtill said in the 1999 Aztec Two-Step documentary 'No Hit Wonder' produced by Gary Licker and aired on PBS.

Elektra president Jac Holzman recalls signing Aztec Two-Step as a way to honor Elektra's folk origins. 'We had started out with folk music and singer-songwriters. We then branched out with rock and roll with Love and The Doors and Queen. I missed my folk roots and I thought Aztec Two-Step was a really elegant folk group, without trying to type them. They had the lighter sound that I was looking for,' he said in 'No Hit Wonder.'

When Aztec Two-Step began, FM rock radio was a wonderland of musical diversity. Progressive album-oriented stations and college radio played The Grateful DeadandTim Buckley. The Who could be heard next to Joni Mitchell followed by the word jazz of Ken Nordine.

Aztec Two-Step's beautifully crafted harmony driven songs from their self-titled debut and subsequent '70s albums on RCA, received extensive airplay and rave reviews that kept the pair on the road.

Fowler told me that he and Shulman figure that Aztec Two-Step has played approximately 4,300 concerts since 1971. 'An average of 100 shows a year for 43 years,' he says. 'It doesn't get old. One of the beautiful things about being able to revisit the material time after time is that you really do get the nuances and interpretations. We don't go too far off what we originally did but certainly, Neal, as a guitar player does that.'

A wonderfully fluid and expressive lead guitarist, Shulman says his guitar influences are many but mention must be made of Phil Ochs. 'He was one guy with one guitar and a pretty accomplished guitar player. He had 'I Ain't Marching Anymore' (1965) with this melody at the beginning and these riffs. When I was 15, I learned to play 'Changes' (an Ochs song from 1966) and that was a big moment for me.'

At around that time, Shulman says that he saw David Bromberg play a concert with Jerry Jeff Walker and became inspired to seek out an accompanist.'

That was so directly responsible for my meeting Rex,' he told me. 'When I met him, I had it in my head that it would be great to find someone who had a good catalog of songs and was also a good singer. As much as I like to play and sing, I thought my strength might lie in my guitar playing.'

Aztec Two-Step's latest release is 'Cause and Effect' a beautifully recorded album containing songs of social significance from the Aztec Two-Step catalog. 'We've been doing this for a long time and topical songs were not always the heart and soul of what we do but they were always part of it,' Shulman told me. 'We thought, let's put these songs together in a format where we strip them down to the basics.''

Assisting are longtime Aztec Two-Step bassist Fred Holman and producer and percussionist Paul Guzzone on updated versions of vintage Aztec Two-Step titles. The record includes audience favorites like Fowler's 'Rabbit in the Moon' and 'Living In America' plus two of Shulman's best songs - 'Shantytown' and 'Life in The 80s.'

'Once in a while a song will come along that I feel compelled to write because it really resonates with me,' Shulman says. 'Life in the 80s' rang a bell with me at the time and I'm glad that you like it.'

'Cause and Effect' contains one of Fowler's earliest songs, 'John Gary,' written in 1967.

In the liner notes, Fowler describes the night he attempted to hitchhike home for Christmas while attending college in Aroostook County. As night and snow fell, he was picked up by a police officer who suggested he safely spend the night in the local lockup. Etched onto the wall of Fowler's cell were poems and drawings by Gary, a Native American who had spent four days there.

Aztec Two-Step's connection to Maine actually began more than two decades before Rex and Neal met. Fowler is a Pittsfield native and has vivid memories of delivering the Bangor Daily News as a boy.

'I remember those cold winter mornings when I'd be up waiting for the train to drop the papers off,' Fowler told me. 'They didn't even stop. They would just throw the papers out,' he recalls with a laugh. 'What I remember the most is that they tied them with wire. I was constantly losing my wire clips and I'd have to take a hammer and somehow wrangle that wire off ruining three or four papers in the process. I don't think I was a very good paperboy.'

Fowler, who called New York City home for 30 years and currently lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut, says he loves to get back to Maine when his schedule allows.

'It's the most beautiful state in America without a doubt,' he told me. 'I have many friends scattered throughout the state and a nephew who lives in Cape Elizabeth. He has a very fun smokehouse in South Portland (Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill). His name is Adam Powers and he plays in a group called Twisted Roots. I gave him his first guitar and led him down that slippery slope of musician-dom.'

Neal Shulman, a lifelong resident of Manhattan, recalls many trips back and forth to Maine. 'I remember some summers of making that drive seemingly every week. I also remember playing in Houlton on a New Year's Eve 'First Night' event (1988). Coming to Portland over the years has always been a fun thing. It's a sweet city and a fun place to hang out.'

At their 'Classic Duos' show at Portland's One Longfellow Square, Aztec Two-Step will pay tribute to some of their favorite duos. 'I think any duo who gets on stage owes an incredible debt to Don and Phil Everly,' Fowler tells me. 'The Everly Brothers had such an influence on Simon and Garfunkel and on Lennon and McCartney both in their songwriting and singing. You hear them in all of the classic duos who came after them and Simon and Garfunkel are at the top.'

In 2008, Aztec Two-Step released the live CD 'Time It Was The Simon and Garfunkel Songbook.'

'We did that project with Pete Fornatale (legendary WNEW DJ, author and early Aztec Two-Step believer) who is unfortunately no longer with us,' Fowler told me. 'He had a personal relationship with Paul and Artie and wrote several books about them. In the show, Pete does the narration and we do the singing. It's a very entertaining show with historical snippets here and there. We're actually doing that show in New York City next month.'

Although the 'Classic Duos' concert will feature many songs written by others, Fowler says that it will be very much an Aztec Two-Step experience. 'When we do those songs, we don't try to be exactly like them. It's really a joy to play them and it keeps it fresh for us.'

Over the last decade, Fowler has paid tribute to two other heroes, Elvis Presley and John Lennon.

In 2004, he released the film '200 Cadillacs,' chronicling the cars given as gifts by Elvis. 'I went all around the United States to track down the recipients of Elvis's cars,' Fowler said. 'It led me on this path from California to Colorado and Memphis, obviously. I went to the state prison in New Hampshire where they have an automotive training program for prisoners. It's a very fun and positive movie. Elvis had a big heart and if you happened to be standing around a dealership, he might have bought you a car.' The film, along with the 'No Hit Wonder' documentary and the duo's back catalog, are available on Aztec Two-Step's website.

In 2010, Fowler launched 'The Nutopians' with Tom Dean of Devonsquare. The seven piece ensemble celebrates the music of John Lennon. The group's debut performance (they were billed as 'The John Lennon Song Project' at the time) took place at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University in September 2010.

'I was totally enamored by The Beatles,' Fowler says. 'John Lennon was always my guy. I have the most respect for him as a person and as an artist. Certainly, every human being has his flaws, but to me, he was just the greatest of them all.'

Fowler and Shulman are humbled by the fact that their audience is still with them after 43 years.

'We still play for people who first saw us when they were in college during the earlier part of our career,' Shulman says. 'It's been a great thing. The fact that we're still doing this and still enjoying it is something I'm proud of. I think we've lived through some decades that were certainly tumultuous. Being musicians and in a band is, by definition, tumultuous. Everybody goes through stuff. If you see 'This Is Spinal Tap' or 'Almost Famous' in some crazy way, almost everything that happens in those movies has happened to us. People have been peeled off some high dangerous places in the middle of the night.'

I asked Neal how his partnership with Rex has evolved over time.

'You get a lot of acceptance,' he told me. 'I remember in the earlier days, trying to steer the car from my side of the stage but you gradually realize that if you go with the flow, something new is revealed. We're playing the music we want to play. We're having fun. We have a common cause and I think our friendship runs pretty deep. We've been through life together. We've been through relationships and loss, disappointments and happiness. Lately, I've taken to saying that breaking up is for bands who made either more money or less money than us.'

'It's kind of like the blink of an eye,' Fowler says, looking back over the group's career. 'Life just kind of flies by but it has been a long and fulfilling career and I feel very blessed that we're able to still do it.'

'The audience is a partner in this,' Shulman continues. 'You show up, you play and you get it back from the audience. They let us know that they're digging it. This is what we want to do in life. So many want to do it and so few relative to that number get a chance. I'm going for it.'

Tickets for Aztec Two-Step's Friday, Nov. 21 performance at Portland's One Longfellow Square are available atwww.AztecTwoStep.comandwww.OneLongfellowSquare.com.

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor/Ellsworth)

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