Jeff Slate brings Birds of Paradox band home for local shows
No one has a Rolodex anymore.
Hopefully, though, New London native Jeff Slate didn't throw his away. As a souvenir, it's the rock 'n' roll equivalent of those sign-in registries at famous old hotels, full of the faded signatures of all the big shots who stayed there.
In Slate's Rolodex, you'd find plenty of A-list musicians ranging from Pete Townshend to Sheryl Crow - not to mention dozens more who've played significant roles in an amazing array of bands across decades of rock royalty.
What this means is that Slate, a singer-songwriter now based in New York City, has for more than two decades - on his own and with the indie band The Badge - impressed not just fans but also plenty of musicians who have become friends and collaborators.
Consider Slate's latest solo album, "Birds of Paradox," which came out last fall. Various Slate "Rolodex" associates played on the 12-song record, including former members of Wings, the Plastic Ono Band, Procol Harum, the Byrds, the Who, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and David Bowie band members Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar.
"Birds of Paradox" is a timeless record - a tribute as much to Slate's innate sense of hooky energy as it is to his own status as a joyous fan of 50 years of rock. From melancholy balladry to mid-tempo/midlife meditations to giddy highway anthems, "Birds of Paradox" reflects the vision of a career musician who will always choose rock 'n' roll as the finest medium through which to distill life itself.
Slate and his Birds of Paradox band perform Friday in New London's The Telegraph and Saturday at the Misquamicut SpringFest on Misquamicut Beach in Westerly.
When Slate was younger, the fascination with rock 'n' roll took on a more raw, giddy style of adolescent joy and aggression.
"Starting out in New London, just a kid, I was a devotee of The Clash and The Jam and The Small Faces," Slate remembers. "My friends and I would just stare at their faces on the album sleeves, mesmerized. They were like cyphers to us. You'd look at Steve Marriott and know you'd never get to see or meet someone like that."
As it turns out, he met plenty. Slate learned guitar and, with his high school band the Mindless Thinkers, rose through the burgeoning New London club scene and quickly established a reputation throughout the region, opening for bigger Boston bands as well as hometown heroes The Reducers.
They also self-recorded and released an album called "Anyone For Anything."
"We had a great time. It was a glorious 18-month run," Slate says. "Then we each had to decide whether to carry on or go to college. I thought, 'I'll just go to New York City, find a few more guys, and do it all again' - not realizing how incredibly hard it is to find that chemistry."
Slate struggled for five years before abandoning the band concept to work on solo songwriting with an acoustic guitar. Along the way, he met The Who's Pete Townshend at a party. They hit it off, Slate says, and Townshend ultimately produced a demo for Slate. While it didn't end up securing a major label deal for Slate, his stock was rising.
"I always remember the excitement of being in a band for the first time," Slate says. "The idea was you were happy to play anywhere, not just clubs but a tennis court or a wine and cheese shop - anywhere you could play. People always say New York City audiences are tough. You know what? They're tough everywhere. That's how you learn and get better."
It paid off.
In 1995, he landed a solo acoustic slot opening for Sheryl Crow on the national tour for her debut album, "Tuesday Night Music Club." He also continued to write, perform and expand his network of musical pals. In 1997, along with guitarist Marc Teamaker, drummer Nelson Pla and keyboardist Matt Kalin, he formed The Badge, a Beatles-and-Kinks-happy outfit that toured relentlessly. They also released the "...Digital Retro..." and "Calling Generation Mojo" albums as part of a wave of rock musicians that embraced the new freedoms and possibilities of indie labels and do-it-yourself projects.
"You know, the Mindless Thinkers made our first record in New London in a bedroom with a four-track recorder." Slate says. "The difference between that sort of project and now? You had to have the money to put the recording out on vinyl and then convince someone to buy it. Not anymore. Kids today seem willing to invest a buck to download a song."
Though The Badge ultimately went on hiatus, the bandmates remain pals and don't rule out possibilities for future collaboration.
In the meantime, Slate is excited and delighted over "Birds of Paradox." From the various stellar players on the album, he's formed a touring band, Jeff Slate's Birds of Paradox, which includes guitarist/vocalist Jimmy McElligott (The Propellors), bassist/vocalist Gary Van Scyoc and keyboardist/vocalist Adam Ippolito (both members of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band), and drummer Steve Holley (Wings, Elton John).
"From the outside, people might not think it, but it's hard work recording and traveling and living in hotels, particularly when you get older and have kids," Slate says. "But there are no points where I don't enjoy making music. The songs on the new album just sort of presented themselves. Over time, I'd gotten to know a lot of musicians that I enjoy playing with and that I look up to. I thought, 'It can't hurt to ask if they'll play on this record.' And no one said no. It's been such a flattering experience."
IF YOU GO
Who: Jeff Slate's Birds of Paradox
When and where: 12 p.m. Friday, The Telegraph, 19 Golden St., New London; 6:30 p.m. Friday acoustic solo and 8:15 p.m. Saturday full band, Misqaumicut SpringFest, Misquamicut Beach, Westerly.
How much: Free in The Telegraph; $7, free for children age 4 and younger at SpringFest
For more information: Contact the Telegraph at (860) 701-0506, telegraphnl.com; SpringFest at (401) 322-1026, misquamicutfestival.
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