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Feb 012012


by Paul Simpson
PA Music
February 2012

Show And Tell–due to be released on Valentine’s Day– is Ed Randazzo’s second album, and he’s enjoying the rush of being on a roll.  “I’ve never been happier in my life,” says the 33-year-old West Pittston resident, and his optimistic outlook is apparent in his CD’s opening song, “Jesus On A Red Flag.”   “There’s actually a church near me that has a red flag on its roof that just says ‘Jesus’ on it,” he says.  “It’s an image I’ve always wanted to use in a song.” 

Randazzo says it’s not a really about religion, but about finding sanctuary on the road of life.  “The man in the song is a drifter, an optimist…he’s quite taken with this little motel in the middle of nowhere, with its blinking neon sign: ‘We have vacancy, color TV, and Jesus on a red flag.‘  Words are exchanged, he’s offered a place to crash.  Something sacred happens, a bond between two people, a new friendship is formed.”  The cheerful ditty is my own hands-down favorite from the album, and I like it even more when he tells me that its jaunty blues harp track is there more-or-less by chance.  “Nik Allen just happened to be there, so we said ‘let’s try it.’”

Ed doesn’t use the word “serendipity” in our conversation, but the anticipation of pleasant surprises is what separates the optimist from the pessimist, the reason that there are “glass is half-full” people and “glass is half-empty” people.  The reason that there are “Sh*t happens and then you die” T-shirts and also “With all this manure around, there’s got to be a pony here somewhere” T-shirts.  “I don’t believe that anything happens by accident,” he says.  “Everything happens for a reason, I truly believe that.”

Serendipitous friendships have played important roles in Randazzo’s life, and deeply inform his music.  “The people in my life are at the core of this new record, my family, my teachers, and my friends–old and new–have all had a profound effect on me in my life and my music.  Even those who have not been so kind, they play a role too![Laughs].  Music is that gift that continually gets passed from one to another–it all goes back to people, and when you add music, you’ve got something called magic.”

Most recently, a chance connection and friendship with Bret Alexander–guitarist and primary songwriter for the long-lived regional powerhouse band The Badlees–led to a collaboration resulting in the 2010 release of Randazzo’s first album, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, which received substantial airplay on Northeast Pennsylvania radio stations.  Alexander, who co-writes the melodies to Randazzo’s songs,  is also the proprietor of Saturation Acres Recording Studio, where he produced and recorded both of Randazzo‘s albums and accompanied him on guitar, mandolin, and other instruments. The new album highlights the duo’s holistic approach to recording by preserving a pair of short, whimsical out-takes of studio banter titled “Good Enough” and “I’m Thinkin’.”  “The studio itself plays an important part, there’s a certain ‘something’ that Saturation Acres has,” Randazzo says.  “Bret presses ‘Play’ and we go for it.  Most of this record, like the first one, is live.”

Randazzo’s voice is deep, rich, warm, masculine–he could do voice-overs for pickup truck commercials–so it’s interesting that when asked about influences, the first four singers he names are female.  When I tell him that “Jesus On A Red Flag” made me think of John Gorka, he laughs.  “Well, when I wrote it, I was imagining Dolly Parton singing it.  Currently I’m on a real Kate Bush kick, but the first voices that caught my attention were Natalie Merchant and Annie Lennox.” 

It was a serendipitous encounter with an Annie Lennox song that convinced him that he could perform.  “I was in a karaoke bar with some friends, and they coaxed me up on stage.  I sang ‘Why,‘ from Annie Lennox’s Diva album, and the crowd loved it.  When I sat down, I saw some people at a nearby table who actually had tears in their eyes. It gave me the confidence to think that maybe I had a gift I should share.”

Leaving the baggage behind and bringing one’s gifts to the world became the theme of one of Show And Tell’s most powerful songs.  “Who’s That Man?” is an expertly-rendered delta blues piece performed in call-and-response style with the backing vocals of Alexis P. Suter.  Arranged by Alexander and A.J. Jump, who play dobro and drums on the cut respectively, it is the album’s only overtly biographical song:

Who’s that man in that reflection, holding on to so much pain?

Holding on to a single thread, his eyes done gone insane….

That man is Eddie….that man is Eddie….

Eddie, gotta pick yourself up, gotta get off the ground and hold your head way up,

Get outside, and sing your song, sing it loud and sing it strong…

Wash that hair, and wipe those eyes, and leave your bags at the door,

Get outside, and sing your song, that’s what the world is waiting for,

Eddie….that man is Eddie….

Eddie….is me…

I ask what serendipitous accident brought Suter–a New York-based blues singer of some renown–to a small town outside of Scranton to perform on two of his songs, and of course, there is one:  a photographer friend from the next town over had done a lot of album shoots and knew a lot of singers.  Randazzo wanted an authentic female gospel/blues voice on “Who’s That Man?” The friend provided several names, but Randazzo only needed to hear the first one.  “After I heard Alexis, I didn’t even listen to the others, that was the voice I was after.  She came down fully prepared, laid down her track in one take, so we asked her if she had another song in her as long as she had come all that way.  So she stayed and sang on ‘Still Cry’ as well.”  “Still Cry,” also rooted in traditional blues, has just been released as a single.

Randazzo considers himself a roots musician for the most part–”I know that folk and blues fit my voice best”–and most of the album’s songs fit this description.  “House On The Hill” is an ethereal lament of life’s disappointments, which Randazzo sings with a ghostly intensity.  “Let Me Go” is a lean, angry rebuke of an ex-lover. 

There are some outliers though, perhaps most notably the title cut, “Show And Tell.”  I’m not sure to what category this little gem of a love ballad belongs, so I’ll make one up:  1960s Slow-Dance Music, think: “Tell It Like It Is”.  Randazzo croons on this one: 

Baby, meet me by the river,  hmm-mmm, and set down your load.

Meet me, in the darkness, yeah, no one will know.

I offer my shoulder, I give you my hand,

Tell me your troubles, I’ll be that man

…you could run to…

Appropriately, this track features the multi-talented Alexander on Hammond B3 organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano to set just the right romantic 60s Starlite Room atmosphere.  The other anomaly is “You Give Me,” for which Alexander creates a Mediterranean vibe with Spanish-style guitar and castanets.

This latter song is notable for another reason as well: according to the album notes it is dedicated to “Vic Chestnutt (1964-2009).”  I didn’t know who Vic Chestnutt was, but soon found that I probably should have (what did we do before Google and Wiki?).  Vic Chestnutt was a well-regarded singer-songwriter who had been seriously injured in a car accident at age 18, and lived the rest of his life as a paraplegic, with only limited use of his hands.  Chestnutt died on Christmas Day, 2009, from an overdose of muscle relaxants.  According to Chestnutt’s Wikipedia entry, “In the 2009 interview with Terry Gross, while discussing the song ‘Flirted with You All My Life’, he said, ‘You know, I’ve attempted suicide three or four times. It didn’t take’”.  Randazzo’s song dedicated to him contains the line “My body is crooked, and so is my heart, we enter, we exit, we all do our part.”

I had decided that I wasn’t going to mention the fact that Ed has cerebral palsy–unless I found a specific cue somewhere in his work.  “Who’s That Man?” was close, but not quite; plenty of generic things cause people to feel depressed.  I kept listening.  Show And Tell is only 35 minutes of total run-time, but its nine songs feel much longer, in a good way.  There’s a lot there, many layers of the onion to peel back. 

Somewhere around my twenty-seventh listen I thought I had found it, the context that would warrant broaching the subject:   The “crooked body” line from his song “You Give Me.”  The dedication to Vic Chestnutt.  The choice to put the nursery rhyme “There Was A Crooked Man” to music and use it to close the album.  I Googled to learn the origin of the nursery rhyme, and was stunned to find that There Was A Crooked Man had also been used as the title of an anthology of poems by an influential lyric poet named Lex Banning (1921-1965)–who had cerebral palsy.  Eureka.  I decided I needed to ask Ed about all this.

Ed was impressed with my detective work, and understood my ambivalence about mentioning his condition.  “Yes, I do sometimes refer to myself as crooked.  It’s funny you mention this, because just today, Bret and I were in a TV studio for an interview and performance.  The staff were all very nice, but they kept asking me if I needed to sit down every thirty seconds.  I was like, ‘No, I’m good, thanks.  I’m fine, not tired at all.’  People mean well, they just aren’t quite sure how to react.  Some people who’ve heard me sing are pretty surprised when they connect the voice to the  physical appearance.  I get really into my songs when I perform, sometimes it makes my muscles cramp and freeze up.  I can get spastic.  It’s not cool and sexy like your typical front-man thing, but it’s just the way it is.  It’s not like I can hide it.”

I ask him what influence Lex Banning has had on him.  “Who?  Never heard of him.”  Surprised, I explain, thinking he must have misunderstood me, but no–he really has never heard of him.  Now it is his turn to be stunned.  “That’s crazy!” he exclaims.  “That almost freaks me out!”  But he quickly turns philosophical, and the omni-present optimism returns.  “If you hadn’t found out about this guy Lex Banning,” he muses, “you wouldn’t have called me, and we wouldn’t be having this interesting conversation.  See?  Everything happens for a reason.  I don’t believe in accidents.”

 Ed’s Website: