Fans stunned as band clobbers Eddie Hartness with drum machine!
Chanteuse Julie Murphy Wells enters WWE Diva competition!
Robbie Schaefer & Michael Clem launch metal/industrial act amidst burning wreckage of acoustic instruments!!
Of course, none of this actually happened. Eddie From Ohio is still with us. Their sound, streams of music rushing over the common ground of folk and rock, survives on their new album, This Is Me. In fact, this CD is sharper, funnier, more moving and exciting than any of their previous eight releases -- which means that after thirteen years this quartet is still fresh, never stale, and always surprising.
Now, is any of this as thrilling as flames and devastation? Afraid not. And it shouldn't be. After all, trying to package Eddie From Ohio as if they were the "flava of the month" is like cramming your favorite entrée into a Big Mac wrapper.
Not that there's anything wrong with a little artery blockage now and then … but This Is Me is good for the heart, head, and soul, and tasty to boot. It has all the ingredients that whet Edhead appetites: spectacular harmonies, crisp instrumental performances, and songs that range from thoughtful to joyful, from the ridiculous to the sublime. The characters they create -- the weary but tenacious Irishwoman on "Baltimore," the wife who has become a stranger to her husband on "Clear and Present Danger," the precociously restless seven-year-old on "Fly" -- come alive. The places they evoke -- "Independence, Indiana," just beyond the reach of innocence -- feel real. The instrumental textures are bolder, more varied, maybe riskier, and in the end more illuminating than on any other EFO release.
Just as important, This Is Me is their first collaboration with Lloyd Maines, winner of a Grammy Award in 2003 for his production of the Dixie Chicks album Home. His contributions as both producer and performer fueled a process of mutual inspiration that mark This Is Me as EFO's finest achievement to date.
In fact, count on This Is Me as the long-awaited breakthrough moment for a band whose enduring excellence defies all the rules of pop notoriety and adds up to a story more intriguing than whatever the buzz du jour might be.
Take it all the way back to fifth grade -- that's when Michael Clem and Robbie Schaefer met as classmates in McLean, Virginia, just west of DC. Their friendship, cemented even then by a love for music, carried on to James Madison University, a couple of hours from McLean, where each enrolled as a communications major. There they met Eddie Hartness, a music student moonlighting on weekends as a drummer with local bands. And Robbie kept in touch with high school acquaintance Julie Murphy, who was studying hotel restaurant management at Virginia Tech.
During this time Robbie and Michael formed the Jellyfish Blues Band, known around the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia as a kick-ass bar outfit. Through hours of hammering out party songs for frat guys as they reeled and lurched across dance floors with their dates, the two guys learned a lesson that would someday separate them from most so-called folk music acts.
Although all four future EFO members had become friendly, the idea of forming a group didn't occur to anybody until one night, at one of Robbie's solo gigs. Michael and Julie had gone to the show together, and as they began singing along during his set, a light bulb suddenly flicked on in Michael's imagination. "There were groups doing heavy harmony vocals with acoustic guitars," he remembers, "I sensed that there would be an audience for that kind of an act. Turns out I was right."
With Julie onboard as the most frequently designated lead singer, the group asked Eddie to join on percussion. Though he'd only played the traditional drum kit up to that point, he accepted their invitation, borrowed some bongos from Michael's brother, and before long they were playing their first jobs.
"In the beginning we bypassed the coffeehouses and instead went to the bars and frat basements," Michael explains. "It was all about holding the attention of the ADD crowd. That made it easy for us to bring that kind of energy to the quiet listening rooms -- less navel gazing, more chutzpah."
Come to think of it, the story sounds a little too easy. …
Virginia quartet evicted from flat while scrabbling after gigs!!
Vicious club owners pocket hard-won earnings from struggling folk foursome!
Musicians fight to survive the mean streets of McLean!!
The truth is, though, that things went pretty well for EFO from the start. They stood out immediately: Their vocal blend, rhythmic vigor, and prolific, original material was unlike anything else on the market -- sort of like Peter, Paul & Mary on high-octane French roast. Long before DIY became a necessity rather than a choice, EFO elected to keep control of their fortunes: They launched their own label, handled all aspects of their business, booked their own shows …
And, after reaching that crossroads that leads either toward music as a weekend hobby or a way of life, all four members convened one day at Chili's to pledge their full commitment.
I can see the headlines now …
Band abandons security, falls into chaos of music business …!!
"Look," Michael interrupts, "we were all unmarried at the time. None of us was a homeowner. Eddie and Robbie didn't have any fulltime work. Julie did give up a steady income and a health plan at her hotel job, but even so it was hardly a gamble. Gigs were not tough to come by. Things came along easily and quickly. And it was fun. It was a party. We enjoyed every growth stage, like, 'Wow, we've moved up to bigger venues!' instead of 'Why aren't we on David Letterman yet?'"
Being short on angst didn't slow these guys down at all. Playing mainly covers at first, they soon began to emphasize Michael's and Robbie's originals in their sets. New songs came thick and fast -- songs about a funeral for someone nobody liked, about being devoured by a crocodile, bombs that explode too quickly, the weather … no subject was too bizarre or mundane. They pulled six of these tunes off a board tape, copied them onto cassettes, and sold them at gigs. Just like that, word began to spread. And when they started playing every Tuesday night at a place called the Bad Habits Grille, the floodgates opened.
"There's not a deader night in the week than Tuesday," Michael says, "and this place was in a less than desirable neighborhood -- ambulances and police cars driving by on Columbia Pike provided our light shows. So we had no trouble getting a residency. We started in the smaller of two rooms there and filled it with family and friends. After six months or so we were moved to the bigger room. They went from having no cover to asking five bucks a head. And the place stayed packed -- hundreds of people. It became our bread and butter: We could start playing weekend gigs outside of town because we always had Tuesday to come back to."
In '96, having caught media attention with their first three CDs, EFO signed with a major booking agency and began to expand their performance horizons. "Our credo was to do everything we could ourselves until we couldn't afford not to," Michael explains. "So we signed with Fleming & Associates, who started filling our calendar with the kinds of shows we've always wanted to do."
By late 1998, after the Washington Area Music Association picked EFO as "Best Contemporary Folk Group," they were in high enough demand to give up Bad Habits and hit the road beyond the DC territory. They shared stages with Roger McGuinn, Arlo Guthrie, Roseanne Cash, and other headliners at major folk festivals. They opened for acts as diverse as Los Lobos, Dar Williams, Collective Soul, and the Posies. They spread the Edhead gospel far and wide, through performances at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, the Bottom Line and B. B. King's in New York, and Wolf Trap and the Birchmere in their own backyard. They stirred up critics all across the country who were lucky enough to catch their act:
"The greatest band you've never heard of." (US Air's Attache)
"… smart, quirky songs that goose the imagination." (Entertainment Weekly)
" … the darling of the East Coast singer/songwriter scene, employing instrumentation that crosses the musical spectrum, a superb flair for cliché-free melodies, and the stunning voice of Julie Murphy." (Billboard)
"Throw them into the catchall 'Americana' bin if you must, but even that doesn't do them justice." (Houston Press)
"They can sing great, they play great, and they write good songs: the old-fashioned reason to be popular." (Mountain Stage)
(Incidentally, these quotes are real.)
"Things we shied away from in the past -- electric guitars, drum sets, even me jumping from the acoustic to the Precision bass -- didn't scare us off this time, as long as they served the song," Michael explains. "To be honest, a lot of that comes from working with Lloyd. It's the mark of his genius to help us embellish our sound, rather than cover it up. And that gave us an adrenaline push like we've never had before."
So think of This is Me as EFO saying, "This is us." In fact …
"It's like a visit from friends who have some unexpected gifts hidden up their sleeves."
Not a bad headline at all …
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