The New St. George - An Appreciation, by
Pamela Murray Winters
Too Many Dragons - A Historical Essay, by The Brain Trust
Check Your Head - An Essay on Band Psychology
As Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” For the last several years, I’ve been one of the few American fans of English folk rock with a really fine English folk rock band in her own backyard. I didn’t recognize how lucky I had been until a few days ago, when I heard that The New St. George was disbanding.
Over the last decade or so, The New St. George mastered a musical magic trick that has stumped lesser talents. It braided rock, English dance tunes, singer-songwriter pop, surf guitar, rap, and musical theater with a unity of purpose that never left audiences sorting the strands. Never gimmicky, always fun, The New St. George produced one album, High Tea, and found a home in the hearts of many locals and not a few worldwide fans.
I managed to see The New St. George only a few times, but each show was memorable. There was the time my family and I sat in a light rain, hoping that a free outdoor show would come off as planned. When the wind picked up and the tarps came out, we gave up and went to find dinner. Only as we walked home did we discover that the band had gone indoors, to another restaurant, to play.
As we entered Kramerbooks and Afterwords, we saw a crowd of damp but happy people, most in business attire, sprawling over the bar and through the aisles of the bookstore/cafe. Jennifer Cutting, squeezebox bouncing fetchingly off her red T-shirt, was dancing with a bald, blushing businessman. The walls rang with rock. We were entranced. Of course it was the last number.
The following winter I trudged through snowdrifts to Taliano’s, a bar just down the street from my childhood home and in the band’s home town of Takoma Park. This was no tony eatery. The college hoops on the TV over the bar never fell silent. The Murphy’s Stout came in cans.
I wish I could say a hush fell over the crowd when Lisa Moscatiello overtook the mike to sing an unaccompanied traditional song, but there was no hush, only a growing wonder at the magic of her voice. Seeing her give herself to the song, without treating the event as a competition with drunks and television, taught me more about what it means to create art than a week of PBS specials or Smithsonian seminars ever could. Lisa served the muse, not the barflies.
The band has dissolved while it still had the strength. At the Takoma Park Folk Festival last summer, several of Jennifer’s new compositions had us anticipating the follow-up to High Tea . Songs like Crane and Tower showed that this band, despite being equal to the British greats of 1967, was also fresh and vital as the bands that still please British crowds at summer festivals in Sidmouth and Cropredy.
But I guess some people never figured out what The New St. George was about. Some Yanks wrote it off as yet another Irish bar band; some Brits scorned it as a mere wannabe. None of those deaf critics were at Kramerbooks or Taliano’s or the Takoma Park Folk Festival or the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where The New St. George was overwhelmed with buyers for High Tea.
Backstage at last year’s Takoma Park festival, I got my third copy of High Tea autographed. (The first two had been lent to friends who never returned them.) The crowd mingled with the hometown heroes with a mix of star worship and neighborliness. I remember, in particular, the charm of percussionist Juan Dudley, who wrote a personal note with every autograph. What was this muscular African god doing playing Morris dance tunes? I never asked.
Maybe a newer New St. George is on the horizon. It happened to British legends Fairport Convention; a few years after the band broke up, it regrouped for a reunion concert in Cropredy ,Oxfordshire. The reunion was so successful that it spawned more reunions and, eventually, the most stable lineup the quixotic group has had in its 30-year history. I attended last year’s Cropredy festival and found the same spirit of romantic idealism and hedonistic goofiness The New St. George inspired.
Wouldn’t it be great if Takoma Park got its own Cropredy? I can imagine it now; tents lining Piney Branch Road, flags waving, and thousands of music lovers of every age and size grooving in the summer sun to The Steggie.
The truest definition of folk music is music that creates a community. The New St. George, by remaining true to its collective heart, did just that.
Pamela Murray Winters
Pamela Murray Winters is a freelance writer/editor based in Arlington, Virginia. She is a frequent contributor to Dirty Linen and to the Richard Thompson Discussion List.
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by the Brain Trust
“Well, I don’t really think the end can be assessed as of itself as being the end, because what does the end feel like? It’s like saying, when you try to extrapolate the end of the universe; you say, the universe is indeed infinite, then what does that mean; how far is all the way, and then if it stops, what’s stopping it, and what’s behind what’s stopping it, so what’s the end, you know, is my question to you...” David St. Hubbins, lead singer Spinal Tap
It’s a very good question. A retort to the eloquent query of David St. Hubbins may be that all good things must come to an end. And so it proved for The New St. George. The history of the band, like that of Spinal Tap and many real-life bands, unfolds like a sad comedy of errors and missed opportunities.
After years of honing their chops at local concert series and folk festivals, as well as a few regional tours, NSG was poised to try for the next level. Full of youthful optimism and conviction (and more than a dash of naivete), Jennifer poured her life savings (along with help from co-funder Bob Hitchcock) into the project of recording High Tea, determined to produce an album that would rival any major-label effort. And at Bias Studios of Springfield, Virginia, in 1994, true magic materialized as innovative British folk-rock was transmuted onto American shores.
For a while, propects were promising for the band. An A&R man for Chicago’s Fly Fishing label raised Fish president Bruce Kaplan’s interest in signing NSG after their first Philadelphia Folk Festival appearance in 1988. However, Kaplan’s untimely death put an end to those plans. The same A&R man moved on to the nearby Fogey Era label to develop a roster of contemporary touring artists for a company that had dealt primarily in Lemonlighters-type nostalgia reissues. His first move was to sign The New St. George, who had been wooed by several labels, including leading Celtic/British Isles label Red Spinnet, which had dangled them for a year before finally rejecting them.
Their backs against the wall, NSG signed the only contract offered them, hoping to get the national distribution that would take them to the next level. But shortly after the band’s official release party at the Birchmere (one of the East Coast’s most prestigious clubs), the A&R man responsible for their signing was unceremoniously dismissed. This left the band stranded with no champion at a label that was not well equipped to handle a national touring band of NSG’s type and complexity. (“Where are all the backroom boys?/The backroom boys can’t save us now,” as Richard Thompson asked in The New Saint George.)
Not about to let the whole musical ship sink after voyaging this far, Jennifer took over marketing and publicity tasks for the label, in addition to the management, booking, and musical direction she was already handling, and sacrificed half of her day job income at the Library of Congress to do it. She spent months getting High Tea into all of the country’s major folk mail-order catalogs and securing reviews and feature articles in music publications ranging from Billboard to Fairport Convention fanzines. The band soon had a national profile as a result of her efforts.
But the band’s problems were not over. A printing error on the CD tray card caused record stores all over the country to file the CD under the band name “High Tea” instead of “The New St. George,” frustrating customers who were looking for the CD and costing the band many sales.
Shaken but undaunted by these and other setbacks, the band competed for and won a slot in their first major showcase at the National Alliance for Folk Music and Dance meeting in Boston, performing for a high-powered audience of record labels, agents, folk media, and artistic peers. Despite the audience’s enthusiastic reception, NSG suffered the indignity of gratuitous nastiness from Peon A. Wankerson, editor of U.K. magazine Folk Ruts, in the showcase review issue.
Then followed the signing mistake of the decade: The band, desperate for any kind of help to lighten the administrative load, signed on with amazing booking agent Simian Needless. She insisted on an exclusive contract, but found the band only one paying gig in the course of an entire year, while the band had the privilege of paying her a hefty 20% commission from the gigs that they had managed to book for themselves to stay alive. (Nice work if you can get it...)
The tea leaves began to shrivel. A hope for national honors was dashed when High Tea was disqualified for the National Association of Independent Record Dealers Indie Awards for having being submitted to the wrong category. Then the band’s triumph at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, New York--their first main stage appearance at a large festival--was marred by a record company debacle. While hundreds of new fans were clamoring for albums, several boxes of CDs sat locked in the local FedEx warehouse because of an incorrect zipcode.
The brew really stewed when Fogey Era, who finally got around to giving the band a two-page feature spread in their catalog magazine, got the words almost right but the picture a tiny bit wrong. Excitedly opening the catalog, the band could hardly believe their eyes when they beheld, staring out at them from the box that should have contained their photo, the faces of Ian & Sylvia (well-known Canadian folkies of the sixties).
What was the level that The New St. George could reach? An audience of 18,000 cheered the band as they became, as Christine Lavin reported on her Web Page, “the surprise success story of the 1995 Philadelphia Folk Festival,” sandwiched between sets by Beausoleil and The Band, among other groups. But the energy level required to maintain the band on this successful trajectory was more than their resources could bear. Burnout for bandleader Jennifer Cutting came as she realized that she could not enlist the necessary support for the musical vision of The New St. George.
The mental and logistical adjustment from a local, D.C.- based band to a nationally oriented touring unit proved too great a strain for most of the members. The center could not hold, and thus it folded. The band played its last gig at the Fairfax Ecoloday Festival on October 7, 1995 (a day ironically dedicated to preservation); and made its last recording, a demo of Jennifer’s anthem ironically entitled Forgiveness a few weeks later.
Tragically, as if the dragon had vanquished the saint, the band was cut down in its prime. On the strength of the buzz created by their main stage festival appearances, strong record sales, and critical acclaim, NSG was on the verge of being signed to a much larger label. This could have given the band the essential marketing assistance and media push that would have allowed it to emblazon the decade with glory.
Sadly, the projected second album by The New St. George, Johnny Has Gone Electric, was never completed. It would have showcased Cutting’s protean songwriting talents and marked a quantum leap for the band, expanding the boundaries of folk-rock with originals such as Crane & Tower and the title cut, as well as the hymn-like Forgiveness, intended as the album’s celestial finale.
Through all of the financial strains and demoralizing defeats, Jennifer never compromised her insistence on excellence. She met all of the aforementioned difficulties with an iron determination and a belief that hard work and good material would win the day. As long as she had the support of her bandmates, she felt they could survive anything. But when other members’ day jobs and side projects took their inevitable toll on her last source of morale and support, there was no longer any recourse. With a heavy heart but clear eyes she officially disbanded The New St. George on April 16, 1996.
But Jennifer can be very proud of where she was able to lead the band in ten years, and take solace in her legacy of High Tea, a recording which, like many timeless works of art, may finally receive its due long after the bills are paid. It established Jennifer as a unique visionary whose musical mind would be a terrible thing to waste.
And while the NSG may not be with us as we enter the next millennium, we rest assured that the talents Jennifer honed in the NSG are even now finding a supportive place in the world, as she brings her trademark craftsmanship and glorious soundscapes to the international Ballads and Sagas project.
And so ends the story of The New St. George and their Many Dragons. We could not rest until it had been told. At this moment, we pause to ask Jennifer’s friends and fans all over the world to join their hands and voices in a mighty chorus of Tap’s deathless anthem ..."And that’s The Majesty of Rock! The fantasy of Roll! The ticking of the clock, The wailing of the soul! The prisoner in the dock, The digger in the hole, We’re in this together... and ever..."
from The Majesty of Rock, copyright 1992, MCA Pub. Spinal Tap: Break Like the Wind (MCAD-10514, 1992)
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Breakups are inevitable. They are neither good nor bad, they just are. And the reasons for breakups are surprisingly similar from band to band, as this excellent article that Scott Miller found in a Seattle music paper points out. Although this article could have gone in the band How-To section in the Electric Folk Resources part of this Website, I’m putting it here because it certainly describes many of the circumstances that led to the breakup of The New St. George (but hey... we did last almost as long as the Beatles!)
Hold this up to any band you know or are a member of, as a kind of routine blood pressure test. Remember -- If identified early enough, some symptoms may be reversed with treatment, counseling, or special diets!
A band is many things -- a creative endeavor, an exclusive club, a musical outlet, and often a collective shot at the Big Time. No matter how you view it, a band is a specific group of people with personalities. And, dear reader, these personalities have been known to clash. For a band to succeed, each member must be able to appreciate, or at least tolerate, the other members. This is easier said than done. As a veteran of countless bands (eight), I have noted certain behavior patterns that always surface, independent of musical style, particular lineup, or decade. Recognizing these personality traits is the first step in working toward conflict resolution. Every one of the situations and roles listed below is a kind of trap, a counterproductive stance that can be examined, and, with any luck, discarded. Recognize anyone? Maybe...you?
The I’m-in-Four-Bands Member
This approach was originated and perfected in Los Angeles (Opportunity City) and exported everywhere. Afraid of any commitment to one musical situation, these musicians try to be everywhere at once under the guise of “covering their ass.” After all, they figure, one of these bands will succeed, so they’re playing it smart. Problem: each band is only receiving a 25% commitment from this wise one. Rehearsal and gig scheduling approaches mathematical impossibility. Two or more of these scaredy cats in a particular group are the kiss of death. Possible cure: being fired from all four bands in one week. An increasingly popular role, but ultimately destructive.
The My-Songs-Aren’t-Taken-Seriously Complaint
A popular whine. A band is blessed with a songwriter who has spent years honing his/her craft, working constantly and obsessively. A body of work emerges, creating a musical identity for the band. The group attracts a following based on this commitment to writing songs. One night at rehearsal the bass player, who has decided that songwriting is a piece of cake, offers his first composition. “I wrote it in ten minutes!” Popular consensus: yechh! The singer hates the words, the guitarist refuses to learn the chords. Ego crushed, the bassist broods and develops a chip-on-the-shoulder approach to learning new songs. Solution: If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, put in the time. Dabbling in songwriting is a dangerous hobby. Remember, the singer is the one who has to stand up there and do something with those lyrics you’re so proud of. Work.
The Isn’t-This-Band-a-Democracy Challenge
Directly related to the previous paragraph. No band is made up of all leaders, yet a band with no leader, either musically or otherwise, is a band with no identity. One person, often in partnership with another, is usually the core around which a band is formed. This core could be anything -- songwriting talent, stage charisma, organization skill, or the “vision thing.” Successful bands are not, as a rule, democracies. At best, band members respect and support the leader, musically and emotionally, intensifying the artistic thrust of the band. This helps create the “winning team” approach that every successful band embodies. Seriously. If you have a problem with one member having more power in the decision-making process, there is a simple option that’s always available: quit. The key member in a band is the person who, if he/she didn’t show up for the gig, there would be no gig. In the Police, this was Sting. In The Band, Robbie Robertson. Apply this simple test to bands you love.
How do band members work together to make playing in a band a tolerable, even joyous relationship? With humor, or not at all. Throw a band party every now and then. Learn to share the joys of working and playing, and more importantly, to share the horrors of that out-of-state gig that paid $26.50; the flat tires in the rain; the where’s-the-audience shows, etc. Ultimately, the aptly named Golden Rule is hard to beat. Loosely paraphrased: try treating others as you want to be treated. You may find yourself in (Praise God!) a Completely Jerkless Band.
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