Monday, April 8, 2013

My Travel Lanes Journey

The journey to see Travel Lanes in concert this Friday, April 12, at Milkboy Philly began on a Texas college campus almost ten years ago.

I admit it. I missed the late 80’s debut of Flight of Mavis. I had never heard of Flight of Mavis, Buzz Zeemer or Frank Brown before 2004. My introduction came as I dug into Tommy Conwell’s music catalog for a disc jockey gig I had at my college radio station. All I knew about Flight of Mavis was the story of three guys who started out as high school friends and one of them starts to write songs and decides he’s not too bad. 

 “Hey guys! Let’s start a band…” 

That’s how I imagine the conversation began way back then, by the much too under-appreciated current bard of Philly pop music, Frank Brown. 

          In 1988, Flight of Mavis was three twenty-year old kids who lived on the same street in a suburban Philadelphia town. They were friends since the second grade. They grew up on Kiss and Cheap Trick and loved the Ramones. They wrote a song about the Loch Ness Monster. They were together for less than a year and had played only a gig or two when they recorded their first record in the summer of 1988. It was released early in 1989 on vinyl. The songs that made up that original album were recorded in about 40 studio hours, mostly on 'first takes'. With little experience, lots of raw talent, and the good instincts to stay out of their own way, Flight of Mavis made this very cool little record.
                                                                         - BeatForTwo
I missed out on Flight of Mavis touring with Sinead O’Connor and hearing about the ‘underground’ stories that emerged about R.E.M. performing secret concerts on the East Coast under the name Flight of Mavis. Except it wasn't R.E.M. -- it was Flight of Mavis. People would show up because they wanted to perhaps hear a more intimate version of "Stand," and instead, find a three-piece trio from Pennsylvania performing songs that might have been simple, but yet, not so simple and yes, even sublime.

          …now I don’t know \ where to go \ and things that used to seem so normal just don’t seem to feel that way at all \ and I don’t like it at all…
                           - Top of the Pops
, Flight of Mavis
In 2003, Philadelphia Weekly reviewed the re-issue of Flight of Mavis’ self-titled 1988 album on CD with a quote:
"At the time of the album's original release, Inquirer music critic Tom Moon wrote, "With little production beyond what's needed to realize the songs, Flight of Mavis, the band's debut album, glows with honest love for the whole wide world of rock and roll."

Flight of Mavis was in heavy rotation on my college radio show in '05,  and I even got some props on song selection via instant message. I was right in the middle of playing a two-song set from Flight of Mavis. 

Listener:      It is so refreshing to hear great college radio. 
RadioUTD:   wow you like it! thanks! 
Listener:      my pleasure- keep it up. 

Not only was Flight of Mavis in rotation on my show schedule, but in April 2005, so was Frank Brown’s new release on Record Cellar, Out of the Blue, his fifth recorded effort. My favorite song to emerge from that release is the brilliant "No Resistance." A 2005 No Depression article characterize both that song and "She Just Wants To Be Loved" as "testaments to the almightiness of the hook." 

And then, around that same time – out of the blue! – someone unexpectedly mailed me a DVD of PRISM’s Buzz Zeemer 1996 concert live at Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. There it was – thirteen songs and interviews captured in video that up until then I had never even known existed! I wanted to share it, so I posted some performances to YouTube. This act did not go unrecognized, because not long after, the blog acknowledged Buzz Zeemer’s ‘Sometimes’ video with the following statement: 

I have an odd feeling that I am one of only 10 people that
remember this band.

So I counted myself Number 11. But two others also left quotes in the comment section - 
Quote 1: Love this band. Best band you never heard of.
Quote 2: The best Philly ever had....

To which I responded, both then and now, “So true. I will quote you into forever…” 


In the words of Billboard Magazine [“Indie Labels Discover Freedom in Philly” – 10/28/1995]: 

“…melodic pop-rock band Buzz Zeemer…has stepped up to the most-unjustly unsigned level since adding Tommy Conwell on lead guitar.” 

One of my favorite Buzz Zeemer songs from Plaything is "Don't Hang Up," and because the song was unfortunately not featured in the band's 1996 PRISM performance, I took it upon myself to correct that rock 'n' roll wrong. I can go days at a time just listening to only Buzz Zeemer, and enjoy catching some obscure nuance that I think only I know about. For example, the “oh-oh-oh-oh” refrain towards the end of "Irrational" always reminds me of Hall and Oates same verse in another pop classic, "Did It In a Minute." Buzz Zeemer’s MySpace page has some free listens if you want to delve into some of the more obscure recordings and demos. One of my more recently discovered finds is "Punching Bag," but I also hold a special place in my heart for the story of unrequited love told in "Easy Does It."

It always makes me wonder why this kind of music and fantastic songwriting didn’t get played on the radio. 

I found myself a little gem, and I tried to make it shine again…
                                                       - Sometimes, Buzz Zeemer 

While working on a Tommy Conwell documentary for my master’s thesis last year, I spent a lot of time tracking down the live version of Buzz Zeemer performing The Upper Crust’s "Let Them Eat Rock". It’s a rare find. And it’s rockin’! 

But I also came across video of Flight of Mavis in a WMMR feature TV special from 1989 called, Makin' It In Philadelphia II. Also featured in this special were performances and interviews from many of Philly’s most promising acts at the time, a mix of both successful and up-and-coming acts, including the Hooters, Bricklin, Richard Bush of The A’s and Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers. WMMR supported these local acts to the hilt, and maybe there was reason to believe that Flight of Mavis would also eventually be a part of that 'success' bandwagon. 

There was a time in the '80s – we had the A's, the Hooters, Tommy Conwell, Robert Hazard – when I thought Philly was going to become what Seattle wound up becoming in the ‘90s.
                                                                     - Pierre Robert, WMMR DJ 


In 1995, Frank Brown found himself in with a new band of his creation, Buzz Zeemer. That band needed a guitar player. Tommy Conwell needed a band. 

          [Their] stories collided in the mid-1990s. Brown broke up [Flight of] Mavis around the same time that Conwell got his degree in education and became the hippest third-grade teacher in North America. Eventually, the two started playing together in a new band, Buzz Zeemer (whose lineup also included other former Mavis members, Dave McElroy on bass and Ken Buono on drums). Their debut disc, Plaything, came out in 1995.
                                           - No Depression
article, 1999

Buzz Zeemer even made their way down to Texas for South by Southwest, reviewed courtesy of Houston music writer Hobart Rowland [Thursday, March 21, 1996]:
Also Saturday, a small crowd at Tropical Isle witnessed the curious re-emergence of blues-based singer/guitarist Tommy Conwell, whose major-label career was cut short after two so-so releases for Columbia six years ago. A frontman at heart, Conwell hasn't lost any of his ham-it-up style in his new role as second gun to Frank Brown in the hook-heavy Buzz Zeemer, one of the few exceptional new bands coming out of Philadelphia these days…

One of my favorite videos from the TLA performance includes the genius of Buzz Zeemer covering Flight of Mavis’s "Through It All". As someone stated in the YouTube comment section: 
Wow!! Thanks for all of the videos. This one makes me wish i could go back in time. We're all lucky to have been part of this sh*t ! And for all of you that missed it… Sorry about your luck. It was one hell of a ride !!! 

So there it was -- in black and white. The truth that I missed the best years to see one of the best bands to ever come out of Philadelphia. I missed Buzz Zeemer. And because I had been tied down in real-world life, I even missed the Buzz Zeemer reunion in 2007 at Grape Street Pub.  

Every year the same folks at the same place every time \ Shove about, crawl around and see what you can find
                                         - Through It All, Flight of Mavis

But then in April of last year, I received the following message on YouTube: 
If you are in the Philly area and dig Frank Brown, he and a new band are playing Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk, Friday May 11th. Playing some Zeemer, Mavis and new songs too! Sorry for the spam-ish message, but seems as though you were/are a fan. 
The simple fact is that I am nowhere near the Philly area. But as luck would have it, David Uosikkinen’s In the Pocket were playing the historic 23 East in Ardmore the next night, May 12th – two birds, one stone! 

It was my chance to see Frank Brown – the man, the myth, the musical legend – for the FIRST TIME EVER. So I hopped on the plane to Philadelphia and paid a little visit to Dawson Street Pub - even though I apparently couldn't pronounce the name Manayunk well enough for my cab driver to be satisfied. When the band went through a one-song sound check of "Break My Heart," I was ecstatic! And when the concert began, I heard the brilliance in songs that are now currently on the new Travel Lanes' EP: "Intervention" and "The Other Side."

But what struck me most was hearing the other songs that I had spent years listening to only in solitude. What I had formerly only heard in my lone musical bubble, now all of a sudden came to life all around me in that little pub. The band played Buzz Zeemer’s "Red Balloon," "This Town," and "Lost and Found." I caught many others also singing along to "Crush." And hearing a rare performance of a Buzz Zeemer demo called "Shelly Don’t Mind" was ethereal.

Of course, there have been better articles written that are far more eloquent in describing the nature of this fascination with Brown and his singing and songwriting. But it goes without saying that I think Frank Brown is one of alt-country\pop\rock’s most underrated singer-songwriters.

WXPN's Bruce Warren says, "... for three minute pop songs, there isn't a better songwriter around than Frank Brown."
Listening to the new Travel Lanes EP is like a trip in time as you weave through echoes of Flight of Mavis, Buzz Zeemer, and Frank’s solo work...
What music critics had once called that jangly guitar is back and reminiscent of a lot of what I enjoy when I hear Frank Brown's songs. It's not just nostalgia, either. This EP is not perfect -- because it's an EP only, of course -- but it is great.

If you are in Philadelphia, stop by Main Street Music and buy the band's new EP, Hey, Hey, It’s Travel Lanes. Featuring John Bicer pounding out the beat on drums, the youthful exuberance of Derek Feinberg on guitar, Mitch Cojocariu providing background vocal and bass support, and of course, Frank Brown singing and playing guitar. 

So… guess what?! Travel Lanes is playing MilkBoy Philly this Friday night. And I am not going to miss it!!! 

Travel Lanes at MilkBoy Philly - they were amazing!

- The setlist -
Class Trip
Scared of Girls
She's the One
She Just Wants to be Loved
Let You Down
Shelly Don't Mind
The Other Side
Break My Heart

Rain Fallin' Down
Hang Onto Yourself

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