Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, AL is May 16-18, 2014 - www.hangoutmusicfest.com

Clark Vreeland: Man of Mystery

Before there were Radiators, there were Rhapsodizers.  Before New Orleans had art punk, it had Room Service.

Skulking in the background of the city’s most innovative musical entities of the 1970s and early ’80s was a gaunt, half-crazed musical Tesla named Clark Vreeland: sideman and foil to James Booker, cosmic architect with Earl King, muse to Little Queenie. After he left town in 1983, it was not uncommon to hear people cite him as the Crescent City’s best songwriter without being able to name a single song he’d written.

Everyone knew he was a genius, but no one could say exactly what made him one.

A native of Gentilly by the Fair Grounds and product of Catholic education, he was steeped in classic rhythm and blues as well as Russian classical composers. When young Americans heard the call to explore new realms of consciousness, Clark played the role of wagon master, pioneering the trail inward—always accompanied on the journey by a guitar.

The city’s musical identity was undergoing metamorphosis. A new generation was taking on the traditions of classic R&B while incorporating newer sounds, from psychedelia to the harder sounds drifting in from New York and London.

At the time, Vreeland was playing with the band Ritz Hotel with Tim Youngblood, Steve Cunningham, Reggie Scanlan and guitaist/songwriter Becky Kury. His roommate, Ed Volker, played with the Dogs, featuring Frank Bua, Camille Boudin and Eddie Whiteman.

“Ed and I were living together and just throwing together bands for gigs that would come up, a pretty common practice then and now,” says Vreeland. “The oddest thing about the Rhapsodizers was that we didn’t put it together for a gig. We didn’t even gig at all for three months, just wrote and rehearsed, because we could. We had the time, a place full of recording gear. During that period Becky came in on bass.”

The combination worked, and the Rhapsodizers became leaders in the “New New Orleans R&B” scene, They opened for everybody: the Meters, Professor Longhair, They did revue shows where they’d back up headliners who would sing in front of them—Jesse Hill, Earl King, Booker, Jean Knight.

But Vreeland wasn’t quite sure he fit in as a Rhapsodizer. “Ed was writing, and writing really good stuff. I’m young, I’m writing, but my stuff isn’t mature. Where I was coming from as a writer was much more attuned to the whole ‘76, ‘77 punk end-of-modernism thing. I wasn’t so attuned to the roots nature of the band. The more I contributed, the more I felt like I was kind of in the way of what the band really was.”

Seeking an outlet for his new material, Vreeland put together a new band. “I picked up Reggie and Bruce Raeburn and Jim Scheurich and opened up for Rockin’ Dopsie [Senior] at Tipitina’s under the name Room Service. And that became the name of about the next 15 bands I put together.”

One of the strangest iterations of Room Service came just after the breakup of the seminal funk band the Meters. “George [Porter] and Zigaboo [Modeliste] were in this mood of, like, ‘We don’t ever want to play another funk song,’ so we just went out and played weird stuff, whatever we thought would be cool. At the ‘83 Jazz Fest, we covered ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘Foxy Lady’ in an open-D Appalachian style. We brought in Jimmy Robinson as a musically stabilizing influence, if that gives you an idea of where we were at.

‘‘Room Service’ sort of became anything. On one hand, there was me and Pete Labonne and Alex Chilton backing up every drifter that came into town at Jed’s and Jimmy’s. On the other, there was a real band called Room Service evolving, mostly based around Mark Hoffman, who was a really original writer, so he really gave the band a stable identity.”

Throughout those years of musical alchemy, unbeknownst to many fans and band mates, Vreeland pursued a passion for painting. “I was living in a tiny little apartment on Mystery Street, doing these huge canvasses. I didn’t really show them around. It’s hard to take a 20-foot painting on the bus.”

He was also gaining recognition as a songwriter, penning tunes for other artists, notably Li’l Queenie and the Percolators, who were taking the “new R&B” scene by storm, and working with Johnny Ray Allen in a popular but short-lived band called the Mystery Monitors.

But drugs, alcohol and a growing reputation for bizarre behavior were taking a toll. “I’d worked hard, cultivating a rep as a wild man. I mean, nothing sells like bad news. But did I really want to live up to the worst stuff people thought about me.’’

Finally, in 1983, Vreeland moved away, first to Boston (“until I found out what they meant by ‘winter’’’), then Atlanta, where he quit playing and returned to painting. “I was lucky to leave New Orleans when I did because it gave me the opportunity to look at myself and what I was doing, and ask what I really wanted to do and be.”

That period of introspection would lead, in 1987, to a new version of Room Service, based in Atlanta, with bassist Beth Chaney, her husband Ron, Hoffman and Labonne. The band even came to New Orleans for a successful series of shows. “I left town under a cloud, but then I missed the cloud.”

As the decade ended, Vreeland travelled to Colorado, staying with fellow exiles the subdudes, which included Allen and ex-Percolators John Magnie and Tommy Malone, as they worked through the process of arranging the songs for their eponymous first album. At the same time, he and Allen talked and wrote about their struggles with the first stages of sobriety.

Returning to Atlanta, he continued working with Beth Chaney, Steve Kuni and Bob Rice, doing small blues gigs under the name Mystery Monitors (without Allen). Then around 1992, he teamed up with Dave Miner and Wayne Wahl to form the core of another band, Code Blue. Throughout the ‘90s and well into the next decade, the band gained popularity and success in Atlanta’s blues/roots scene evolving, like Room Service, through changing personnel and arrangements.

During the same period, Vreeland’s reputation as a producer grew, with Code Blue’s three releases, Vreeland’s own Years in Exile compilation of New Orleans-produced material and his work on the subdudes’ 1996 release, Primitive Streak.

Then, in 2007, the era of Code Blue came to an end with the death of Wahl, who, along with Vreeland, had shouldered much of the writing for the band. Vreeland reunited with Beth Chaney—who would soon become Mrs. Clark Vreeland—and Bob Rice as a trio. “Beth kind of insisted on Bob, which I didn’t get at the time, but I came to understand it pretty quickly. Beth on bass and Bob on drums just make this perfect, seamless rhythm section. It’s a joy to play with them.”

The combination has yielded a remarkably original interpretation of the blues genre, reinvigorating a form too often dismissed as repetitive and played out. The band has been a pleasant surprise to fans and players in and out of the blues world.

But the name. . .

“We were gigging just as Clark Vreeland for a long time. I come up with a lot of weird band names. I’d written the name ‘Spanky and the Love Handles’ on a piece of paper and started calling the band that at gigs. Everybody hated it, the band, the fans, the blues crowd. So I insisted on it!”

So, even mellowed by age and sobriety, Vreeland remains ever the innovator—and troublemaker. Spanky and the Love Handles’ popularity continues to increase with regular Atlanta gigs, travels farther afield and a new record, Hot Glazed Funky Dunk.

As for Vreeland himself, don’t expect him to fade away. “There is no end to the story,” he says, archly. “It just goes ‘round.”

Clark Vreeland/Spanky and the Love Handles play Snug Harbor Saturday night at 8 and 10 p.m.