Cover story: Local musicians do what it takes to sustain a career

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It's a Sunday night in late January, and the lounge area in Mystic's Steak Loft is brimming with close-out-the-weekend folks. Maybe they came for food and/or cocktails, and it's even possible a few are there to watch the insomnia-curing NFL Pro Bowl on the bar's big screen televisions.

The focus, though, seems to be on the room's small corner entertainment stage and suggests the crowd has come to see a group called The Cartells. Now nearing the end of their 32nd year as a full-time band, The Cartells have long been one of the region's most popular and enduring bands.

"A little math and I'd say we've played about 4,500 gigs," says Karin Barth, the band's lead vocalist/multi-instrumentalist and business manager. Then, as the magnitude of that number sinks in, she adds, "Oh, sweet Jesus! That should make me tired, right?"

"Yeah, 4,500 sounds about right," smiles keyboardist/vocalist Joe Grieco, The Cartells' other co-founding member. "That means we've only played 'Brown-Eyed Girl' about 3,700 times and 'Mustang Sally' around 3,500 times."

Cover band humor.

For, indeed, The Cartells are one of those accomplished and committed acts that exist solely to make a sustained career in music in a context that's not about writing and focusing on their own music. Both situations are absolutely about love of music, but carving out a living at one or the other are two different things. For bands like the Cartells, the job description is to play several sets a night, multiple days a week — in duo, trio, quartet and full-horn-band lineups — of custom-tailored setlists designed to provide the perfect soundtrack at club gigs, dances, corporate functions, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, private parties, benefits, or Happy Hours.

Labor of love

"(Stardom) has never been the dream for us," Grieco says. "We did one original project, and I've enjoyed writing music. We know plenty of the original songwriters in the area, and that's what they do and that's great. And stardom isn't necessarily the goal there, either. It's how you go about your craft. For me, I love to play, and this is how it works for us; if a song makes someone happy, I'm happy to play it. When I was young and caught on to the pure joy of playing and the idea of getting to do it for a living, however that worked out, it was an amazing realization."

"In 1976, I wanted to be Bonnie Raitt," Barth says. "That's what I was about, but the odds are incredibly long. Eventually, I learned that, if you want to do this for a living, you figure out a way. This. Is. A. Business. Joe and I have employers and subcontractors, and we treat them with respect. It's not easy and it's not for the faint of heart, but we've worked hard and done well. I love that the universe has blessed us in this industry."

Barth's sentiment seems to be a similar mantra for a lot of area musicians who've found a way to work full time at what they love. It's frenetic, to be sure, but also fulfilling.

Brian Merritt, for example, doesn't sleep much. A Mystic resident who grew up addicted to his father's classic rock collection and then learned to play guitar studying metal acts, he now plays five to 10 nights a month as the lead guitarist for the long-in-demand rock cover band Wicked Peach. There are several more monthly shows in Lewis & Merritt, an acoustic duo he has with WP vocalist Ernie Lewis. Merritt is also a professional luthier with his own Merritt Guitars company, where he builds and repairs instruments. And, yes, he also teaches guitar. And he spent years working in music stores.

"Playing ALWAYS makes me feel better," Merritt says. "I've played when I was really sick or exhausted and stressed out — and it always makes me happy. Often, I'll finish a gig and be so amped that I'll come home and play guitar for three more hours."

While Merritt spent time early in his career in original bands, he realized the long odds. He also fathered twins and made the decision to stay close to home and subsequently designed his musical career around that priority.

"I don't know if I ever wanted stardom," Merritt says. "I don't know that I'd handle it well; that takes a different sort of confidence. I also don't know that fame is necessarily the goal of all original bands. I thing overall it's that all of us love music. Music takes me to a happy place, and this is how it works best for me."

"Writing and playing your own songs is definitely fun, but it's not easy," says Steve Cleary, who was taking college-level harmony courses while a student at Waterford High School. "It's something I like to work on, but it's just part of the overall story, which is that I love to play music. And I wanted to make a living at it."

He pauses, wanting to make sure he's not leaving anyone out as he describes the number of folks involved in his life as a full-time musician. Although he plays regular solo singer-guitarist gigs focusing on Irish music in clubs like the Landsdowne Pub in Mohegan Sun and the Inishmore Pub in Colchester, he also expands that repertoire heading up Irish band Clan O'Cleary — which can number anywhere from two to five musicians at any given gig. He also does numerous solo, duo and trio gigs playing top 40 and soft rock tunes, performs in the funk-rock Clarkes 'n' Cleary trio as well as prog band the Lawnboys. He's also kept a heavy teaching schedule for decades — a practice that maxed out a few years back with 60 lessons a week.

"Of course it can get tiresome," he laughs, "but explain to me why I keep thinking of new configurations and styles of music to try? I think (frequent collaborator/percussionist) Che Cartafalsa and I are going to start a calyso duo. Why not? I love it."

James Harris carries a leather satchel with him. Inside is a laptop and a few old-school monthly datebooks — the pages of which are crammed with scribbled notations of gigs and appointments with guitar students. A graduate of Fitch High School who has a degree from the Berklee School of Music, Harris plays 15 to 17 solo shows a month as a singer/guitarist at area venues like the Daniel Packer Inne, Perks & Corks and the Harp & Hound and, like his contemporaries, maintains a busy teaching schedule.

Harris grew up listening to his parents' classic rock collection and started to love guitar. In school, hanging out with like-minded kids and starting to play music was, he says, "a cultural decision; (music) was a place to land as a kid." And though he played in the high school pit band for musicals, collaborated and jammed with a variety of fellow students in college and played coffee shops and open mic nights, Harris says he concentrated on disciplines at Berklee that helped him in areas ranging from performance to business.

"Music seemed to me from the beginning a sort of solo endeavor," Harris says. "Maybe that's an usual approach. But it works for me. I primarily make my living playing cover songs, and I enjoy it. If you're watching and listening to me and you're happy, then I'm happy. I do enjoy writing my own songs, and I'll play some of them at gigs. It's fun when people respond or even ask for them, but I'm gratified when the audience responds to anything I'm playing."

Versatility and stamina

Central to these folks' success is an ability to please virtually any audience demographic, which is why they all have ready songlists that frequently number in the hundreds.

"As a band, The Cartells have a couple of hundred songs we can pull from at any point," Grieco says. "We never rehearse because we basically don't have to. In terms of my solo piano gigs, it'd have to be thousands of songs I could play. I did a lot of piano bars for a while, and my goal was to be the best  human jukebox I could be. I'd take a request and give it the best I could. Even if I screwed up, I'd try to make that aspect of it fun for the audience." He pauses and laughs. "You know what's been a great invention? Lyrics on cell phones."

"I've done six-hour gigs at Tuscany and didn't repeat one song," Harris says. "If my hands get tired, I'll switch to a different guitar. If my voice gets tired, I've learned to control it and how to push it if I have to. I've actually had rare occasions where I did three or four gigs in one day." He smiles. "I would not recommend that."

Barth, who was leaving the day after the Steak Loft gig for a week's vacation in the islands that she treats herself to annually, says the reality of Time can be intimidating.

"Thirty-three years in this band and we're still standing," she says. "I play with some of the most talented guys on the East Coast. They'd be welcome at any studio session. We all know how lucky we are and that we've reached the point where age and health become factors. Is it fun to still hump gear at 3 a.m. in the cold? But you get onstage, and it's still wonderful. Can we do autopilot? Of course! But you see a bride dance with her dad to their song, or a crowd react happily to a song they've heard a thousand times. It's still magical to them — and so it's magical to us, too."  

Merritt reflects on the fact that what he does really IS a full-time job.

"Another thing about this business is that it's always changing regardless of the setlist. I've had students that got so good there was nothing left for me to teach them. That's actually pretty cool," he says. "And, a few weeks ago, friends asked me to be part of a one-time-only Pearl Jam tribute night. What ended up happening, I had to get up at 3 a.m. to learn a solo for that gig. That's the only time I could do it. How great is that?"  

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