For Mars Slingshot, Practice Makes Perfect

If society has learned anything from Keith Richard — other than cigarettes and whisky appear to prolong life indefinitely — it’s that rock ‘n’ roll is not just for kiddies anymore. There are plenty of famous grandparental types like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young who continue to record new material and book tours that clog arena calendars like Jerry Garcia’s arteries.

The trickle-down effect to that scenario is that plenty of older rock musicians who aren’t famous (and never were) are still kicking out the jams. New London’s Mars Slingshot — four guys on the mossy side of 40 — offers a variation on that still-rockin’ theme: they’re a new band that focuses on original material.

They have an engaging, self-titled new CD to prove it, a compendium of material demonstrating a maturity of songwriting and performance that indicates years of attention to craft.

Comprised of 49-year-old producer/guitarist/vocalist Don Cash, bassist Frankie John Monte (43), drummer/vocalist/engineer Art Falconi (47) and keyboardist/vocalist Peter James (41), Mars Slingshot play a sophisticated and melodic brand of jet-age rock. They record together not just because they enjoy one another’s company, but because they find that arranging and performing Cash’s perfectly competitive songs is more rewarding than bashing through ZZ Top and Beatles covers.

Tonight, they go public — playing an 8:30 p.m. show at McNulty’s Pub in Old Saybrook (Rt. 1 in the Ames Shopping Center), the group’s first in-public gig together.

“It has been a while since we’ve played out,” Falconi laughs. “For me and Don, that’d be about, oh, 10 years.”

“Yeah, I’ll admit it — I’m a little nervous,” Cash chimes in.

“Not to worry,” James says. “The place is gonna be full of my drunk friends, so it’ll be fine.”

Mars Slingshot is looking forward to expanding their performance calendar – besides tonight’s show, they’ve been booked at Toad’s Place in New Haven on April 20 and will play at the New London City Pier on July 12 as part of Op-Sail 200. Tthe CD, which is available at Mystic Disc and at Caruso’s Music, has scored airplay locally on WCNI. A second album, which will probably focus on the instrumental, jazzier/progressive side of Cash’s muse, is also in the plans.

“Writing songs is like an affliction,” Cash says. “For years I played in bands that concentrated on original music with the same dreams everyone has of hitting the big home run. After 30, I started concentrating more on being in the studio; if you’re still doing it at that age, it’s in your blood whether you’re going to be signed or not. By then, you’re doing it for your own self-expression, and because it’s like a three-part construction project: you write the song, you show it to the guys and let them input ideas, then you polish it and record it. The whole thing’s quite a rush.”

Sitting in the music room/studio of Cash’s New London home — a wood-paneled area cluttered with recording equipment, guitars, keyboards, and a cross-pollination of memorabilia focused on Jimi Hendrix and the New York Yankees — the four musicians relax on a rainy late-winter night and talk about their new album and the prospect of taking their music public.

Relaxed camaraderie permeates the room, in spite of the fact that the band has been together over a year and hasn’t yet played one gig, Part of the reason for that is because they’ve been happily involved in recording the album in this room – Cash’s home studio. Another is that, regardless of the respite from the stage, all four are long-time veterans of the local live-music scene with hundreds of gigs under their collective belt.

New London residents Cash and Falconi have been friends for 22 years and played cover tunes together in the Don Cash Group. James and Monte grew up in Deep River and Chester, respectively, and were mainstays in longtime club faves Whitewater Rapids. Over time, Monte played a stint in the Don Cash Group and eventually helped out with some of the early recording sessions at Cash’s studio after he’d retired his band.

For years that latter process essentially involved Cash and Falconi recording Cash’s new songs one at a time and then put each away on a shelf. Eventually, Monte became a regular part of the process and, as the material called out for more and more keyboard parts, Monte suggested bringing in his White Water Rapids compadre James. The four got along so well they decided to work together and hang a name on the project.

Though Cash has a varied musical background and enjoys jazz fusion as much as rock ‘n’ roll, the particular characteristics of the four Mars Slingshot players pushed him in a rockier direction.

“Before, the songs were probably too complex,” Falconi admits, “and Peter and Frank made us get more song-focused. As a result, Don’s become a much better writer; I don’t think the songs on the CD would’ve been written if he didn’t have this band to write for.”

“As for releasing the record, well, you can bypass a record company these days with technology, so the idea of getting a product out that doesn’t need corporate approval was very alluring to us. There was no way to do that years ago. and we’ve gotten caught up in the technological possibilities and the marketing opportunities of the Internet.”

The material on the CD extends back over several years, while the various technical components of Cash’s home studio have been upgraded on a regular basis. “Mars Slingshot” is an immediately likable first effort. A teacher at the Caruso School of Music who graduated from the Berklee School of Music, Cash is a multi-stylistic player who dabbles in jazz and rock with equal joy and whose songs represent an instantly catchy and musically challenging style that brings to mind everyone from Mark Knopfler to the Radiators.

The band plays with tight empathy, and though Cash himself admits that some of the sonic quality is a bit thin – particularly the drums, which were miked in a fairly rudimentary fashion – the songs themselves are unique and inviting, from the jazzy inversions of “Tow the Line” and folk nuances of “Lady From Lyme” to the heartfelt balladry of “Just a Friend” and the Hendrix Jams With The Band magic of “Rivals in Time.”

Not that the band is expecting any label moguls to drop out of the sky, telling them to quit their day jobs (two of the guys are parents and all are comfortably ensconced in careers). But for now, the excitement of having a new record out and performing the songs live is reward enough.

“I hope we keep going another 30 years,” Cash says. “It’s kinda sad it took me till 49 to get the first (CD) out. But you do it for your own self-expression and for the music. When I was 45, I was taking lessons from a 25-year-old, and once we started playing together, the age thing went out the window. It’s like that in Mars Slingshot. The more we play together, the more there is to learn.”
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