Dennis Brennan performs during his band’s long-running residency at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge.
For lovers of Boston music, Hump Day is about to become more like Harumph Day.
For an extended time at least, we will no longer be able to depend on the midweek medicine that is the Dennis Brennan Band residency at the Lizard Lounge.
It would seem the gig has become a victim of the widespread successes of Brennan and his band members — Kevin Barry, Duke Levine, Richard Gates and Billy Beard. The regular Wednesday show, the longest running weekly residency in the 22-year history of the Lizard, has routinely gone on summer hiatus in July and August, and taken periodic breaks, but this year the residency will go on an open-ended hiatus following the April 10 show. Brennan said he and the band will be back at the Lizard sometime this fall although it’s likely to be later than the usual September reboot.
This is cause for depression among the band’s fans. If you were starting a Boston band from scratch, you would be hard pressed to come up with five players better than Brennan, Barry, Levine, Gates and Beard.
“There were times when we had to stop in the past because everyone was so busy. This is one of those times,” Brennan said last night before taking the stage for the first of this season’s final four performances. “Everybody is a little tired. … And with so many other commitments piling up, we’ve decided that by doing it less, we can do it all better.”
With the time demands, it’s testament to the players’ commitment to the band that they have kept the residency rolling as long as they have. As two of the most celebrated guitarists in Boston, Barry and Levine tour extensively with Peter Wolf and other notable national acts. And they are also doing more and more with Levine’s project “Super Sweet Sounds of the ’70s” with videos and a potential live record in the works. Beard is the drummer and a driving force for Session Americana, which just wrapped up a three-month Lizard residency of its own, and Gates is only the first-call bassist for everyone.
Brennan fronts so many bands, it’s a wonder he hasn’t yet been blinded by the spotlight. He and the White Owls, a blues band with Tim Gearan, Steve Sadler, Jim Haggerty and Andy Plaisted, and a Monday residency at Toad, just put out an excellent new album, “Live at Electric Andyland,” and may play some dates around that. Meanwhile, his work with Anthony Geraci and the Boston Blues All-Stars (Geraci, Brennan, Troy Gonyea, Mudcat Ward and Jeff Armstrong), is expanding as the band generates more buzz and touring offers behind their latest album and videos.
Said Brennan of the All-Stars: “We did a video at the Fallout Shelter [in Norwood] that got a lot of notice, and we got picked up by Intrepid Artists, which is a huge agency, so we’re going to Norway this summer.”
Brennan said it is not without a degree of sadness that he and the band put down this residency for a bit, and acknowledges that the first few Wednesdays off this spring might feel a bit weird. “I think it might be a little dicey the first couple of weeks,” he said, “but I’ve got a lot to do. I’ve got songs to write!”
To appreciate the long and deep connection between the five players, and understand the things that make the Lizard residency a full-blown phenomenon that stands the test of time, all you need do is sit down with the players backstage and get them going. The musical spawning ground points largely to one place: Brendan Behan Pub in Jamaica Plain. It was there that Brennan and Barry started playing regular gigs together as the Iodine Brothers. It is also where Levine joined in, and where Beard first heard Brennan perform.
Barry and Brennan had met earlier at the Tam in Brookline, where Barry looked on incredulously as Brennan performed one night. “I was blown away. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this guy is the best at everything. … I mean, the songwriting, the singing, just wow.’”
It elicited loud chuckles from Barry and Levine last night when Brennan asked, “You want to know where I first met Duke?” Levine kiddingly shouted, “No!”
Brennan smiled and proceeded: “One night Kevin blew off a gig at the Brendan Behan, so I’m sitting there on my amp, and in walks this guy, ‘Hi. I’m Duke Levine.’”
Barry had recruited his friend as a sub, and joked it was a fool’s errand.
“If you’re going to be brave, get the best damn guy you can get,” Barry said, punctuating it with a few colorful curses for emphasis. “It’s not smart to get Duke to sub for you … ever!”
When they opened a residency at Toad under the name Dennis Brennan Band for the first time, Barry and Levine would switch weeks because, as Levine said, “we never played two guitars in those days.” Now that is part and parcel of the Dennis Brennan Band, Levine and Barry trading licks in call-and-response guitars or with Barry on the lap steel. And it all sprang from, as the players call it in the shorthand of the familiar, “the Behan.”
Beard said he was introduced to Brennan when “somebody dragged me to the Behan years ago.” And like the others he came away amazed.
When Brennan’s band looked to begin a residency at The Independent in Somerville’s Union Square in the early ’90s, Beard saw an opportunity to fulfill a gnawing musical desire.
“It was a goal of mine forever to try to get into the band,” said Beard, a charter member of the Boston band Face to Face. “And when they wound up at The Independent, and were looking for somebody [on drums], I said, ‘Yeah, I’m your guy!’ … And I was very thankful when Dennis said OK.”
Although it would be awhile longer before Gates played with Brennan, he related similar sentiments along the lines of a musical “great white whale” sighting in seeing Brennan for the first time, playing with The Martells at the long-defunct Inn-Square Men’s Club in Inman Square.
“Dennis was just singing his ass off,” Gates said, “and I went, ‘Wow, this guy is just incredible.’ … I couldn’t believe it.”
Like the others, Gates said it was a career highlight when “Dennis came to me and asked me to join the band,” prompting an interjection from Brennan, “begged you to join the band.”
Brennan acknowledges he feels blessed to have assembled such a stellar group in his name.
“I do. I’m lucky. I also realize that if I wasn’t giving it back to them, they wouldn’t have played with me this long,” Brennan said, “Obviously we’re not making a lot of money with this [residency]. We’re doing it because we love playing with each other.”
Added Gates: “I think the thing that makes this band special is that we’ve all played together for so long in different configurations. … It is the thread that connects us all.”
That is a big reason there is a hesitancy to pull on that thread and try to schedule substitutes around the various calendar conflicts in the coming weeks.
Beard, who also books the Lizard and Toad and first proposed bringing the residency to the Lizard in 2006, confirmed that sentiment, and offered unbiased proof in the form of the recent reaction by Danny Kortchmar, when the rock legend and renowned engineer Niko Bolas teamed with the band for a recording session as part of a project at Berklee School of Music.
“Kortchmar listened to us for like five minutes and he was like, ‘Holy [expletive]! … You guys have that thing.’”
And it’s true.
“The magic happens when it’s the five of us, so let’s try to keep that alive,” Beard said of the band discussions around the hiatus. “We just decided to give it a rest for awhile.”
When Brennan spoke last night in the band room about possibly returning to the Lizard residency in October, though not necessarily on Wednesday nights, the depth of calendar conflicts came clear just minutes later when Beard stopped in mid-sentence out in the hallway upon hearing that projected date of return. “Did he say October?” he asked. “Uh, oh. I’m away with Session in Europe virtually all of October. …”
OK, so it might be November. … Another month of agony for all of us!
Just before the band went on stage last night, as Levine pondered the thought of perhaps 29 weeks with no Dennis Brennan in the usual Lizard digs, he had an idea: “We can put a cardboard cutout of Dennis behind the curtain, and then open it up on Wednesdays, so we can all still come see Dennis.”
While he laughed heartily at that idea, Brennan said the band is looking into playing select gigs at larger venues over the summer, so all is not lost for devotees. There is another antidote: Soak in as many of the final three shows of this season’s run as possible. The prospects of as many as six or seven months without the Dennis Brennan Band residency is like facing a winter without sunshine.