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Mainers making musical magic! A look at some of our state's songsters

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Mainers making musical magic! A look at some of our state's songsters (Top left: Eric Bettencourt - photo courtesy the artist; Center: Dominic Lavoie - photo by Lauryn Hottinger; Top right: Merther - photo by Kate Grout; Bottom right: Halley Elwell - photo courtesy the artist; Bottom left: Rivertown - photo By John Clisham)

There’s great music being made virtually everywhere in Maine and I consider it a high privilege to be encouraged to tell you about some of the people responsible for its creation.

For this story, I reached out to five diverse music-makers to discuss their art. It’s been a stirring experience to first listen to their work and then hear the backstory on how some of it was crafted, to learn what inspires them, and to discover why they are motivated to make music.

{gallery}Eric B{/gallery}

Eric Bettencourt

This genre-smashing music maker was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, and spent his early years growing up in the Aroostook County town of Sherman Mills. After four years at UMaine in Orono, Eric Bettencourt spent more than a dozen years immersing himself into Portland’s vibrant music scene before transplanting to Austin, Texas, nearly a decade ago.

Bettencourt has recorded five full length LPs and two EPs of rearranged cover songs. His latest album is “Bric-á-brac, a superb collection of perfectly sequenced alternative folk pop that combines elements of rock, bluegrass, blues and Americana.

His just-released non-LP single “Lost in the Woods Again” is an updated full-band version of the song that opens “Bric-á-brac; it was originally intended for inclusion but only recently completed. The version on the album features Bettencourt playing everything except drums (played by Charles Gagne), while the new single’s high-octane take on the song includes a Brian May-like harmonized guitar solo from Eric, along with a solo from Richard Corson on an altogether different arrangement. The single is available on Bettencourt’s Bandcamp page and all digital platforms.

Bettencourt returned to Maine a few weeks ago to play a series of shows at Portland Lobster Company which has become a regular summer venue for the artist. He says it’s wonderful to return to Maine for a few weeks, but he seriously misses the scorching heat he loves to absorb back home in Austin.

“Maine is great and full of wonderful crazy characters,” Bettencourt says. “It’s an awesome place where my best friends live but I need the heat and Texas gives that to me.”

Bettencourt says he moved to Austin because he felt he needed a musical challenge. “I knew there was a conveyer belt of insane musical talent going through Austin and I wanted to tap into that,” he says, adding that Austin offers artists the opportunity to present their work in front of a culture of music lovers.

“There are hundreds of serious venues there and it’s difficult to understate the fan culture in Austin, the way they come out of the woodwork to see shows and support you,” he says.

Bettencourt released the non-LP “From the Wreckage,” in April. It’s about a relationship that he says turned out much differently than he expected. Next on his chopping block will be a cousin to that song he says. He recorded an early version of “Until It Isn’t” in February and posted a split-screen video to his YouTube channel that shows us six different Bettencourts each adding a different layer to the song.

You can connect with this uber-talented artist at www.eric-bettencourt.com.

{gallery}Halley E{/gallery}

Halley Elwell

Her songs are breathtaking. Halley Elwell is a stunning singer and songwriter with a background steeped in jazz. A native of Hallowell, Elwell says she grew up in a “creative and chaotic atmosphere” and says singing was her first language.

“I tried to replicate voices I heard either on the radio or in my mom’s record collection,” Elwell says of her earliest musical memories. She was inspired by a musical aunt and remembers the tears that streamed down her face at a very young age while watching her aunt in a musical theatre production. “People asked ‘What’s wrong with Halley?’ and I was too embarrassed to tell them that I was simply moved to tears.”

Elwell went on to study jazz and African American music at UMass-Amherst before relocating to San Francisco for nearly a decade. She says she had a love/hate relationship with the city because it was so expensive to live there but her time working at the SF Jazz Center, an all-ages performance and education venue, allowed her to see some of the greatest musicians of our time.

Elwell’s new EP, “The Last of What I Know,” opens with a song inspired by an incident that occurred when she stepped on the J train one morning to discover that it was full of praying nuns.

“They’ll get on from time to time and just pray and it’s quite something to be on the train with them when it happens,” Elwell says of the song which captured that moment along with the contradictions of what it was like to try to life in San Francisco.

“Sisters on the J Train” is a great example of Elwell’s gift of marrying a perfect pop melody and arrangement to a set of inspired multi-layered lyrics brought to life with her astonishing voice.

The song was selected as a finalist for the 2021 John Lennon Songwriting Contest. “It was really nice to get that recognition because that song means a lot to me,” Elwell says.

Elwell will release a video for “Sisters on the J Train” on August 11.

“The Last of What I Know” was recorded at Q Division Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, with producer Dave Brophy (Howie Day, Josh Ritter, The B-52’s). It’s streaming on all digital platforms, including Bandcamp, and a limited number of CDs are available now from her website www.HalswellMusic.com.

Elwell held an EP release party concert in May that also served as a fundraiser for Neurofibromatosis Northeast. Elwell has the condition that affects the nervous system but says she doesn’t often get a chance to talk about it.

“I wanted to find a way to share this music with people and at the same time share this other element of myself,” she says of the concert and fundraiser. “I wanted to shine a light on this condition and also do some good. It feels good when you can leverage your musical talent to help raise awareness for an organization you believe in.”

{gallery}Dominic L{/gallery}

Dominic Lavoie

Portland-based songwriter, musician and producer Dominic Lavoie has been creating his own brand of melodic, dreamy, psych-tinged trip-pop for about two decades.

Born in Edmundston, New Brunswick, Lavoie grew up a few miles away in Madawaska in far northern Aroostook County. He had just returned to Portland from a trip up north to visit family and friends when I caught up with him for this story.

Lavoie was the principal songwriter in Dominic and the Lucid, a band of high school friends that released five albums. That group has been on an extended hiatus for about five years as members are scattered around the country playing in different bands. Lavoie says the band was a big part of his life for years and will never formally break up.

“I can see us getting back together and recording another album together when we’re like 60 or something,” he says.

Last year, Lavoie released a knockout album with “Wave With a Broken Arm” produced by longtime Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin. The record is a powerful amalgam of catchy music and lyrics with elements of humor all imbued with inventive sonic surprises. When you hear it, you’d think it would be impossible to perform live but Lavoie and his band did just that in a live in the studio version that has just been released as the digital-only “Stasis States.”

“It was a live performance of the album that we thought turned out great,” Lavoie says. “None of it was edited, what you hear is the band doing one pass of the tunes. It was kind of a substitute CD release show that we filmed and multi-tracked live.”

Lavoie says it was exciting to have Berlin in the studio offering an additional voice. In addition to his work with Los Lobos, Berlin has worked with The Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, Paul Simon and R.E.M. to cite just a few high-profile projects.

Lavoie’s bandmates for both “Wave With a Broken Arm” and “Stasis States” included Aroostook County native Mike Chasse on drums, Pete Genova on bass, Justin Wiley on keyboards and John Nels – another County native – on guitar and backing vocals.

A big fan of analog sound, Lavoie likes to first record to tape before mixing digitally.

“I like the process a lot and I really love the sound of analog,” Lavoie says. “It’ all about the performance and less about doing a million takes.”

Lavoie is currently working on his next album which he says is difficult to describe.

“Because it was recorded during covid, I had to have the guys come in to layer their parts,” Lavoie says. “In that sense, I guess it’s more me but maybe it’s more indulgent (laughs) because there were fewer people around to add their input.”

Some people in Lavoie’s household have already let him know they love the new songs. Lavoie is a father of two children, ages 3 and 6.

“The kids are already humming the new songs,” he says. “They’ll sing them back to me which is really a cool thing. They’re young enough still that they think it’s totally normal to spend all day working on your songs (laughs).”

Keep up with Dominic at www.DominicLavoie.com.

{gallery}Merther{/gallery}

Merther

If you’re a music fan with broad taste and a penchant for improvisation, the Bangor-based jam band Merther is looking for you. This band of friends started playing together about nine years ago and has undergone just a few personnel changes in that time. The current lineup has been intact for three years and features Cam King on guitar and vocals, Keith Briggs on guitar, Josh Bowden on drums, James Morang on bass and Devin Ryan on keys, organ and synths.

The members of Merther say they each have varied musical taste and pull elements from multiple genres to create their own music. Their 2018 studio debut “Long Time Coming” is an impressive collection of songs that showcase the band’s strength – skillful musicianship that involves careful listening to what every member is playing and the ability to transition into different musical genres.

In a live setting, as a series of live concert videos prove, the band shifts styles multiple times during a show, giving audiences elements of psychedelic rock, prog-rock, roots reggae, funk, jazz and folk. These guys like to mix it up.

“Improvisation and spontaneity is a big part of what we do,” Cam King says.

King’s love for improvisation started early. He says his jazz musician mom was always playing great music around the house which instilled in him a desire to learn how to improvise.

When performing live, which they’ll do Saturday, August 7, at 6:00 p.m., at Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, Maine, and on October 23 at Bangor Arts Exchange, Merther says they constantly strive to transcend the expectations of their audience by throwing in surprises.

“Our audience really cares about the music and about this band,” James Morang says. “We have a tight-knit group with some diehards who make it to pretty much every show.”

In addition to performing their own material, a Merther show might find the guys dropping in unexpected rearranged covers of songs by artists as diverse as Snoop Dogg, The Eagles, Rage Against the Machine and Bob Marley. Of course, they also play choice material from Phish and the Grateful Dead. Merther played an afterparty show to a full house at Bangor Arts Exchange after one of Phish’s 2019 Bangor concerts.

That same summer gave James Morang a moment that he says became “the highlight of everything” for him as a musician. He was playing with a different band at Thresher’s Brewing Co. in Searsmont, when a gentleman wearing a hoodie approached the stage near the end of the set and asked if he could sit in on drums.

“We were just getting ready to play our last song,” Moran remembers. “We said ‘Sure, come on up and play, and when he pulled the hood off, we saw it was Jonathan Fishman. I got to jam with him on a 10-minute three-piece improvisation and it was incredible.”

Phish’s drummer has been known to sit in with many bands in the area, especially those playing near his home in Lincolnville.

“A lot of bands try to win the lottery with Fishman coming around to their gigs,” Cam King said.

Merther has accumulated about three albums worth of original material since the release of “Long Time Coming” and they say they intend to start recording a new batch of songs soon.

“We think you’ll be able to hear a lot of growth in our next record,” King adds. “We’ve all evolved quite a bit as musicians since we did the last one.”

You’ll find Merther at https://merthermaine.bandcamp.com.

{gallery}Rivertown{/gallery}

Rivertown

The four members of the Winterport-based band Rivertown have each been part of musical outfits that played diverse styles of music. Together, they create something new. It’s kind of like bluegrass but on their diverse EP “Breakwater,” you’ll hear electric guitars and drums, along with pedal steel guitar, fiddle, dobro and even a cat’s meow. Really, they’re a Newgrass band that puts an emphasis on strong harmony vocals, sharp musicianship and storytelling.

Each member brings something unique to the group. Kim Pitula adds harmony vocals. Her husband Phil, Winterport’s former town manager, sings harmony vocals and plays bass. Dana Littlefield plays electric and acoustic lead and rhythm guitars and Charley Earley sings lead and plays acoustic rhythm guitar.

Rivertown’s formation grew out of a continuing series of musical get-togethers among friends. Littlefield, a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, remembers being invited to Earley’s place one evening to play music and relieve some job-related stress.

“The next thing I knew, Charley said he had breakfast with Phil at the Bacon Tree restaurant and they say we’re a band and they’ve got us booked to play a gig,” Littlefield said with a laugh.

The group’s “Breakwater” EP contains five original songs along with a cover of “Boulder Skies” by Pure Prairie League.

Among the group’s self-penned material is Pitula’s “Black Coffee,” an old-school tear-in-my-beer country song about a guy whose lady left him with nothing but a cup of joe (and some cheap beer). The song’s pedal steel part was played by Jack Anderson, a former Winterport resident, now based in Scarborough, who is a former member of the 1960s counterculture satirical rock band The Fugs.

Earley’s “Wouldn’t You” is a rocker while his “Evening Tide” has a strong ‘70s singer/songwriter vibe. Littlefield and Earley’s “Runnin’ From the Fire” is a country-bluegrass hybrid that tells the true story of one of Littlefield’s friends that went from a bad relationship to one that was even worse.

“We all have our strengths,” Littlefield says. “Phil is the vocal arranger and he’s very good at it.”

“Harmonies are of extreme importance to us. There are a lot of talented groups out there but I think the vocals separate most groups from others,” Pitula added.

Kim Pitula adds that being part of Rivertown, a group that gets together to play and rehearse each Thursday, makes her week.

“Breakwater” was recorded by Andrew Clifford at Main Street Music Studios in Brewer. When Clifford played the EP for a group of visiting college students as an example of the music made there, Earley says one of them asked “Who are all these different bands?”

“We took that as a compliment,” Earley says. “Every song is an adventure.”

The band has yet to officially release “Breakwater,” but they are considering making it available for streaming. You can catch them live in September at the annual Hartland Days celebration.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 August 2021 10:14

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