By Jim Morrison
Sometimes fans either don’t realize — or don’t want to realize — that Mary Ramsey became the lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs nearly 25 years ago, nearly twice as long as Natalie Merchant.
“At a gig recently, I had a woman come up and say she had no idea that Natalie Merchant played the violin,” says bassist and founding member Steve Gustafson. “That’s not a violin, I told her. It’s a viola. And it’s Mary Ramsey.”
While the fan’s comment shows the enduring appeal of Merchant, it’s also testimony to how seamlessly Ramsey has slid into her role and how successfully 10,000 Maniacs has navigated 35 years together as a little college band from Jamestown, N.Y.
They survived Merchant’s departure and then nearly a decade later, an even bigger blow, the death of founding member Robert Buck to liver failure. In the 15 years since, they’ve gone from playing just four shows a year to more than 50 shows a year, joined a new booking agency, and found their feet again on stage. They headline “Last Night on the Town” (New Year’s Eve) at the Virginia Beach Town Center on New Year’s Eve, a rare holiday night on the road for them.
What’s the difference between the band of decades ago and now?
“We play sober now,” Gustafson says, laughing. “We don’t stay sober, but we play sober. We’re a lot better and people are responding to it. We were stoned and drunk, and we thought we were the best band in the world. No, we weren’t. Not even close.”
The band invested in in-ear monitors and it’s been a huge difference. “Now, we’re playing for each other, which is important.”
That comes through on “Playing Favorites,” a live set that dares to reprise with Ramsey their greatest hits from “What’s the Matter Here” through “Because the Night,” the cover of their 3-million selling “Unplugged” album to “These Are Days,” their last major hit.
Close your eyes and it sounds like the band of three decades ago with a slight veer to folk rock from the alt rock of their 1985 major label debut, “The Wishing Chair,” thanks to the addition of Ramsey’s viola and her more clearly enunciated vocals. They were fast friends with another up-and-coming alternative band in those days, REM.
Ramsey was an easy fit after Merchant’s departure following “Our Time in Eden,” their final studio album together, and their second MTV Unplugged appearance, netted only when their manager whispered to the network that Merchant was leaving. Ramsey was playing in a duo with John Lombardo, a founding member and, along with keyboard player Dennis Drew.
“(The transition to) Mary was very easy,” Gustafson says. “She lived near us. She knew us. She knew the songs. We tend towards laziness sometimes. We said, ‘Oh, sure,” let’s do that.”
Ramsey adds a few Celtic tunes to their repertoire. For fans who say it’s not the same, Gustafson has a challenge. “People will say that’s not Natalie Merchant, I’m not going,” he says. “Come and see us. You won’t combust and if you don’t like it, I’ll buy you a drink after the show.”
You’ll find him, drink in hand, at the merchandise table, by the way.
Gustafson confesses to being “a little bitter, but it’s not terrible” about Merchant’s departure. It was not a surprise. She told the band before entering the studio the last time that she wanted to go solo. “There wasn’t any screaming and shouting when she left. We knew for a long time,” he says. “She threatened to leave a lot because we were assholes and drunken fools.”
“People were devoted to that woman and I understand why. She’s amazing,” he adds. “We were grateful for the time we spent with her.”
He does regret the timing. “It was a little disappointing because we were really set,” Gustafson says. “Our next record if it was going to be a good record. We were going to play arenas. We were setting the stage to be big. There was the brass ring and she took it with her. But what are you going to do? We weren’t going to beg her to come back. And it was worse when Rob died.”
Rob is Rob Buck who died in 2000. “We took some responsibility for that,” he says. “He kind of went off the deep end and we couldn’t stop him. We weren’t very good examples.”
They had an intervention, but it didn’t stop his decline. “It still hurts today,” Gustafson says. “I didn’t know what the hell we were going to do. It was really freakin’ sad. I cried for a month. I couldn’t even stand up at his funeral. ”
Gustafson took work as a house painter and eventually as the theater manager at a local community college, a job he still has today.
They started playing again when Lombardo hooked up with a Toronto benefit for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. It was a few thousand dollars. Jeff Erickson, the band’s guitar tech and a protégé of Buck, joined on guitar.
“It was kind of fun,” Gustafson says about the Toronto gig. “Then we just started playing more and it felt kind of natural. We’re slow moving and we take time out and let things happen naturally and don’t force anything. But it just felt ok.”
Music became an income again. That helped. But Gustafson says he didn’t really feel the band was back until they recorded “Music from the Motion Picture” in 2013 using a PledgeMusic fund.
It’s been a long career for guys who couldn’t play when they joined bands as students at a community college in Jamestown, N.Y. The Ramones played the area in 1977 or 1978 and that provided the big bang for local bands. Gustafson and Drew formed a band and they started playing factory bars, doing their own tunes because they weren’t good enough to play covers apart from a few simple reggae songs.
Lombardo was in a separate band, but he came to their shows and encouraged them. “Dennis and I had ideas,” Gustafson says. We weren’t really very good. But we were really interesting.” When members of Lombardo’s band went off to college, he joined with Gustafson and the others.
The band name came during a drinking and smoking session from a list drawn up by Lombardo. The first 10,000 Maniacs show occurred Labor Day weekend in 1981 at Mothers, a quirky joint with a coffin, a barber chair and Mothers Milk, a brandy Alexander, served in Mason jars. Gustafson says it’s still there, one of the few Jamestown bars that have not burned down.
They still occasionally play the first song they wrote together, “Tension Makes A Tangle.”
Their writing routine was just a little unusual, especially in the early days. The band would come up with ideas and start playing instrumentals. Merchant would sit on the side of the stage scribbling notes. “We wrote those songs in front of people,” he says. “They changed when we got to the studio a little bit — a producer might have an idea and say let’s do that chorus sooner.”
“These Are Days” for the last album with Merchant, which was written off the road, came after Bob Krasnow, Elektra Records head, heard their work and flew to Jamestown to tell them he needed something more. He kept telling them he needed more, something more, a line Merchant used in “Few and Far Between.”
For that “something more” Krasnow demanded, Buck had an instrumental in a Hawaiian tuning he’d been playing. They turned it into their biggest hit, number one on the alternative chart.
“It worked,” Gustafson adds. “Sometimes musicians need to be shoved around like that by the powers that be.”
For Gustafson, these days, the thrill is getting up on stage. He teaches a business of music class. “I tell students that if you can find a job at the end of the day where people are standing up and applauding for you, take it,” he says. “There’s nothing like it except maybe seeing your children born. That’s a drug. That’s a very good drug.”
WANT TO GO?
December 31, 9:00 PM (FREE ADMISSION)
Virginia Beach Town Center