T here was a time when singer/songwriter/bandleader James Velvet had a popular monthly tentpole gig leading one of the area’s best-known folk-rock acts, hosted a weekly acoustic music series at local coffeehouses, played bass or rhythm guitar in other people’s bands, and gigged incessantly.
Not that he’s slowed down, but James Velvet isn’t the year-round phenomenon he once was. Sure, he continues to co-host the Local Bands radio show which airs every Sunday night at 10 p.m. on WPLR-FM, is the front man for three separate bands, and releases, on average, an album a year.
But this is clearly his busy season now. Velvet is best-known these days as an open-air troubadour (usually with his Lonesome Sparrows bandmate Johnny Memphis) at the CitySeed Farmers Markets, especially the one on Saturday mornings in Wooster Square. The markets begin their weekly spring/summer schedule on the first week of May.
He’s also just released Boom Boom Room, a new album with The Ivory Bills. The CD release party is at a different outdoor gathering, the annual Daffodil Festival in Meriden’s Hubbard Park. Beyond being a family-friendly community event with carnival rides and fireworks, the Daffodil Festival is renowned as one of the year’s largest gathering of Connecticut-based musicians. Thirty-seven local bands perform this year. The Ivory Bills play on the festival’s Bandshell Stage on Sunday, April 29, at 12:45 p.m.
Befitting his organics- and roots-loving
James Velvet (& Friends)
April 27: Huntington Street Café in Shelton
April 29: Meriden Daffodil Festival
May 5: Wooster Sq Farmers Market Opening Day
farmers’ market fanbase, Velvet explains that ”just about every one of these songs” on BBR “is recycled.” Having written and performed for decades, he has a slew of tunes which may not have gotten a fair hearing in their earliest incarnations, or which he may have just gotten around to finishing. “It’s not about developing new material right now,” he says. “I have to select songs which work specifically for the Ivory Bills, even though there is a lot of crossover with The Lonesome Sparrows.”
…and indeed with The Mocking Birds, Velvet’s landmark local band of the 1990s which played packed monthly gigs at Café Nine and released five albums along with several EPs. Johnny Java has been a founding member of all three bands, either as a bassist (with the Mocking Birds) or a drummer (with The Ivory Bills). “The best thing on this record,” Velvet says, “is Johnny’s drumming. Especially since he’s known as a bassist.” Johnny Memphis not only duets with Velvet at the Farmers Market but is one of the two guitarists (with Dick Neal) in The Lonesome Sparrows. The Ivory Bills is a trio of Velvet, Java and electric guitarist John L.
Boom Boom Room was recorded at the warehouse space overseen by Nick Lloyd of Firehouse 12 studios. The recording, mixing and mastering are by Greg DiCrosta, whom Velvet calls “a terrific engineer, the best around here by a long shot.”
The opening track on BBR, “What I Said,” was a staple of old Mocking Birds live shows, “but I think this band does it better,” Velvet says. “Fall Down Drunk” has a pun in its title which is no longer evident: the song was intended as the title track for the autumnal entry in a series of seasonally themed Mocking Birds EPs, of which only two (Spring Collection and Summer Born Great) were released. The psychedelic, guitar-drenched “Strawberry Blonde” is another reworked Mocking Birds song, while “Just Plain Jane” first appeared, in a much sparer mandolin-and-percussion arrangement, on an acoustic solo James Velvet album. “This Blues” also had acoustic origins that were amped up for this outing. “Selling Flags,” about the commercial exploitation of the patriotic impulse, can be considered the “newest” song on the disc: “I started writing it in the 1980s,” Velvet relates, “but it was just a bunch of notes in a folder until recently.”
The closing number of the concise, seven-song new album is “Wonderful World,” a wise, warm and loving song about appreciating what’s all around us. This is something James Velvet is extremely good at. The song is full of sweet observations, needling his band as “The Medicare Boys” and tacking this honest, touching remark, “And she’s still in love with me, I think,” onto a line about how he still has “a great big hunger” for his wife. “As long as she’s in love with me, it’s a wonderful world,” he sings, and confesses that he wrote that verse while watching his wife Nancy Lee, a librarian, walking across New Haven Green one day. Given such positive and sensitive sentiments, you’d think this would be a sultry pop tune like Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Yet Velvet’s own “Wonderful World” is a hard-rocking rave-up.
James Velvet sees his wonderful world from many angles—rocker, folkie, singer, guitarist, raconteur, radio host, farm-friendly neighbor, devoted husband and warm-hearted good-spirited citizen. It’s his season, and, not entirely coincidentally, it’s also time to celebrate.
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Kathleen Cei.