No end in sight - Pocket Vinyl celebrates 1,000th show
Those Hallmark or Party City people, whose collective job it is to hype and profit from holidays and momentous occasions, have created and calibrated all manners of cards, banners, balloons and gifts appropriate to particular anniversaries.
But what’s the go-to present when the milestone is 1,000 gigs?
If you’re asking popular local art/pop duo Pocket Vinyl, who indeed celebrate their millennial show Friday at the Strange Brew Pub in Norwich, they’d love it if you just show up.
“It would be a pretty successful night if the Strange Brew was full and we see a lot of familiar faces and some new ones,” says Eric Stevenson, the pianist/singer/songwriter who handles the musical part of Pocket Vinyl’s aesthetic equation. Elizabeth Jancewicz provides visuals by painting, onstage at each performance, a complete work of art which is then auctioned off at the end of the evening
But, in the e’er-creative Pocket Vinyl galaxy, Jancewicz and Stevenson, who are married, have chosen to flip the burden of expectation in commemorating the event. They’ve prepared tokens of appreciation for the attendees: each fan will receive a hand-crafted origami ball filled with “secrets and treasures.”
Pocket Vinyl will also perform a new tune, “Thunder Blanket,” which, Stevenson says, “is a song we’ll only play every 1,000 shows.” (To see a video on the Pocket Vinyl creative process as per “Thunder Blanket,” go online at www.theday.com.)
If that quote seems to amusingly suggest a one-and-done life expectancy for “Thunder Blanket,” don’t be so sure. Stevenson says that, more than a decade and (soon-to-be-10) albums into Pocket Vinyl, he and Jancewicz have had plenty of road time to assess their career to-date as well as future goals, expectations and realities of their shared career. Their self-booked tours have crisscrossed the country numerous times including a literal record-setting junket in 2019 when they played a show in each of the 50 states in 45 days.
“There are ups and downs, obviously,” Stevenson says, seated at the piano in the couple’s Preston home, with a picture window view of expansive farmland across the road, “but we’ve many more positive experiences than not.” He smiles and shakes his head. “I could see us down the road doing our 5,000th show.”
That means you can possibly hear “Thunder Blanket” five more times!
Do you remember the time …?
In the meantime, the idea that Pocket Vinyl has played 999 shows is something that Stevenson doesn’t parse into reflective absolutes. The idea of “best” or “worst” shows, for example, is almost impossible to quantify — but more theoretically than in terms of stand-alone gigs.
“No matter how great or bad a show is, there are always ways it can continue in either direction,” he says. “There’s always a greater show right around the corner and the ‘worst show ever’ can always surprise you by how much worse it can get.”
Similarly, the sheer accumulative power of their trail of concerts is something that Pocket Vinyl is proud of and appreciates — in part because, starting out, most bands probably dream of sticking around together for even 100 shows.
“I do remember feeling like 100 shows would never happen, but I would never say anything like that to myself,” Stevenson says. “Part of getting us to this point is convincing ourselves along the way that ‘maybe the NEXT show is the one that will break us!’ I still feel that, and if that confident delusion wasn’t there, this business would have broken us long ago.”
An ongoing process
Pocket Vinyl will play two sets Friday. One will feature the standard duo while the second utilizes a recent full band configuration formed to maximize the sonic possibilities of his evolving musical and textural vision. The lineup includes Tim Donnell on bass, Jay Silva on drums and Alex Glover on guitar. Silva and Donnell are longtime members of Straight to VHS, while the Boston-based Glover plays in the jam band Weird Phishes and has lately been involved in Pocket Vinyl studio sessions, serving as an instrumentalist/engineer/co-producer.
“Eric and Elizabeth are two of the hardest working artists I know,” says Rich Martin, owner of New London’s Telegraph Records and former manager of Hygienic Art. Martin has booked dozens of Pocket Vinyl shows and his label, Telegraph Recordings, put out several of the band’s albums and EPs. “They continue to challenge themselves to push their music, art and brand forward to reach new audiences and they do so in very innovative ways that keep it fun for them and give their fans something to join in with, which is really compelling.”
Part of the ongoing energy and momentum of Pocket Vinyl is the pair’s fireworks-display approach to creativity. From the clever but simple original framework — guy plays post-indie-rock songs on piano; girl paints a new picture wherever her brain and heart and hands take her — Jancewicz and Stevenson have continually expanded the parameters of what Pocket Vinyl can offer.
Musically, their 10th album, tentatively called “You Never Say Goodbye When You Leave,” will be out early next year. Previous recordings including leaps-and-bounds stylistic exercises such as “Tin,” “Death Anxiety,” “Protagonist,” “Uncomfortably Unsure,” “Winter Person” and its ambient offshoot album “Hygge.” A lot of the work is self-reflective in nature and explores such themes as sexuality, religion, death, uncertainty and, ultimately, hope.
Throughout, Jancewicz’s paintings are instantly distinctive, fusing folk art imagery and impressionistic colorscapes. Part of the magic of the pair’s collaboration is that, while the music and the pictures can easily stand apart from one another, there is an ongoing symmetry to their shared efforts.
There’s also an aspect of reality to their work. They gotta pay the bills. True to their vision, they’ve found ways to incorporate their talents to further the mission of Pocket Vinyl. A few examples:
— Song and painting commissions from fans
— “Drive. Play. Sleep.,” the 2017 documentary the couple made about an entire year on the road – chronicling not only their own experiences in an attempt to find additional meaning and essence behind what they do, but also including dozens of interviews with similar bands and artists struggling to make a living playing music. As the film’s tag suggests, it’s “the story of every band you’ve never heard of.”
— Self-generated merch including not just the usual T-shirts and bumper stickers but also original artwork, dresses featuring patterns based on “Winter Person” illustrations, bundles including a variety of components, and various tchotchkes designed for specific tours or albums
— A softcover book that comes with the download of the "Winter Person" and "Hygge" albums, featuring comic strips where Jancewicz reconfigured the song lyrics for her illustrated narratives. The book also features essays written by Stevenson about the creative process behind the tunes. There are also hidden codes, glyphs and puzzles that lead to additional material.
— Jancewicz draws a web comic called “The Touring Test” about Pocket Vinyl’s life on the road. The work was recently featured in an exhibition at New London’s 1Up Gallery, and she’s also working on a graphic novel.
In 2019, embarking on their 50 states/45 days tour, Stevenson told The Day, "We definitely try to think of fresh things to do with each project, but it's not something we think of as marketing. Instead, we want to keep people interested in what we do. Pocket Vinyl is pretty unique but, at points on tour in the last few years, it was hard because people are starting to know us. They still like us and the quality of the work is still there, but we don't want to repeat ourselves."
A huge part of the ongoing Pocket Vinyl journey is their relationships with fans and venues — and vice-verse.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure being a part of Pocket Vinyl’s journey,” says Jason Wallace, a musician who owns the popular Strange Brew Pub live music club in Norwich. “We’ve had the opportunity to work together on the common goal of a successful show many times over the years. When you work at something as often as we have had, the relationship grows beyond the casual musician to venue dynamic to that of actual friendship.
“Eric and Elizabeth are kind, thoughtful, and talented people and it is an honor that value our relationship to come to me for a milestone show that this Friday marks. A thousand shows is an impressive feat.”
Seated in his living room, a steaming tea cup perched on top of the piano, Stevenson says, “I think anyone who’s played more than 100 shows can tell you how hard this is, and there becomes an unspoken understanding among musicians who’ve toured a bunch about what the life is like. But we’ve learned that a lot of it comes down to attitude — just trying to play your best and put on a great show no matter how many people are there.
“Sometimes I look at this piano and it’s gonna be around for the rest of our lives … all the songs I write in the future are right here.” He taps the instrument. “These same notes. I just don’t know what they are, but 30 years from now I’ll find a song and I will have access all along to these exact same notes.” He smiles. “It almost feels like it’s hiding from me.”
If you go
Who and what: Pocket Vinyl’s 1,000th show
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Strange Brew Pub, 86 Water St., Norwich
How much: $10 advance, $12 door
For more information: www.pocketvinyl.com, (860) 885-1975