Sue Menhart Band celebrates "Love Ain't Hard"
There will be no cross-country jaunts opening for Susan Tedeschi or Bonnie Raitt; no private tour bus or backstage riders promising vintage wines and scented dressing room candles. Likewise: Do not program your DVR hoping to record any musical guest slots on "Saturday Night Live" or "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
Nope, in the big context of fame, it's probably long past time when Stonington's Sue Menhart Band, one of the region's most enduring and popular acts, has any expectations of "rock stardom."
And guess what?
"Oh my God, we're having loads of fun now," says Menhart. She's speaking not just in a "pressure's finally off" context, but also in celebration of the band's just-out second album, a digital-only release called "Love Ain't Hard." She adds, "No longer do I care — or anyone in the band — about making it, because it's not going to happen. Maybe that wasn't easy to accept or admit, but at a certain point we decided: We're gonna have fun and do good things and stop worrying about it."
The Menhart band performs at 10 a.m. Tuesday on WCNI radio, as well as Friday at the Steak Loft in Mystic.
"Love Ain't Hard" is probably the first project in Menhart's career — whether booking gigs, writing and recording, doing relentless promotion or any of myriad band-related tasks — that hasn't been fueled by a life-long desire to be a successful recording artist on a national or international stage. And now, after two-plus decades working the club circuit in tireless pursuit thereof, a new sense of freedom has been a decidedly profound realization.
Menhart, a singer-songwriter-vocalist who eloquently chronicled many of her expectations and experiences in pieces published in the regional arts magazine Sound Waves, acknowledges many years spent viewing rock 'n' roll as a sort of either/or proposition — either she'd make it to stardom or accept failure.
(Disclosure: Menhart writes the "Out and About" column for the Times Weeklies newspapers published thoughout the region by The Day. I have also performed onstage with Menhart on a few occasions as part of the annual 94.9 News Now Birthday Bash.)
It was only with the realization that success in the music biz is predicated far more on luck than talent — and that maybe that sort of glossy career wasn't in the cards — that Menhart realized something. Making music and writing songs for the pure love of it is an incredible rewarding and fulfilling thing.
"Making 'Love Ain't Hard' was pretty amazing, really," Menhart says. "It was challenging in all of the right ways. As a band, we want to challenge ourselves and surprise ourselves and not try to figure out what someone else might want. Obviously, we want people to see us and hear us and like the album, but we're not worried about how many downloads there are or if someone's streaming it. We want to do good work and enjoy ourselves, and we're not going to stop. I've never been so certain of that."
"Love Ain't Hard" is available for download at suemenhart.com and also streams via Spotify.
Utilizing a timeless sound centered around Menhart's stormy voice and instantly-fetching, groove-basted songs, "Love Ain't Hard" is an eight-song blast that should resonate with multiple generations of blues-rock fans. Musically, the group — also featuring drummer Kevin Clark, bassist Dave Foret, guitarist Dan Bergeron and keyboardist Dan Spano — is a seamless aggregate of area veterans with starry chops and an affectionate sense of chemistry and interpersonal dynamics.
All of these elements shimmer on "Love Ain't Hard," which was produced by Menhart and recorded, mixed and mastered by Dennis Walley at Stone Wall Studios in North Stonington. In addition to the regular band members, sax players Don Packer and Tommy Mahfoo also contributed.
Highlights on the album include the galloping "All of You," with its spiraling chorus and confessional message; "Here You Are" and "Can't Feel the Rain," each of which is a blues ballad and twists the usual structure in respective and dynamic ways; and "Party On the Beach (The Brian Wilson Song)," in which Menhart pays affectionate homage to the Beach Boy genius through plenty of clever song title puns.
As a writer, Menhart is also resolute about her motives. "I write whatever and whenever it strikes me; I don't sit down and try to force it," she says. "I might be at the grocery or whatever and get a melody line, and I'll just run outside and sing it into the phone. Later, and it might be weeks, I'll try to fit it to chords and figure out whether the feel is bluesy or rock or jazzy. I'll get lyrical ideas and bring it to the band and let them have at it. And that's when it's fun. I sit back and watch what they can do with it."
The album's highlight, though, is the tender but powerful "Moving On." It's one of two tunes on "Love Ain't Hard," along with "Party on the Beach," cowritten by everyone in the band. A beautiful, melancholy piece, it's a cautionary expression of love and acceptance written from the perspective of a parent to a child — which is particularly resonant as all the group members are in fact parents.
Menhart suggests it's perhaps ironic that "Moving On," as a presentation by a "rock band with guitars and drums," is by definition archaic to the very young people they're addressing. Regarding music by the contemporary artists listened to by a younger generation, Menhart says, "I don't know. I sort of don't get it. There aren't any musical instruments happening. It's just computers that people pound on or recorded samples and beats. I know, I know: the Millennials say, 'That's music today.' I say, 'For you, maybe. That's how it works.' Things change, and we write and play the way we do. I won't bow down to Bruno or Taylor sitting at a keyboard and plink-plink-plink."
Menhart pauses and laughs. "Listen to me. But we are what we are. By now, we've gained a lot of experience in terms of knowing what works for us, musically and onstage, and what is actually kind of stupid. We've had to go through a lot to get that perspective. And I have a lot of respect for our audiences because they're not stupid, either. We just focus on that and, like I said, we're having a blast."
If you go
Who: Sue Menhart Band
When and where: 10 a.m. Tuesday radio broadcast, WCNI 90.9; live band performance 7-10 p.m. Friday, Steak Loft, 27 Coogan Blvd., Mystic
How much: free
For more information: suemenhart.com
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