Rick Berlin's latest incarnation

Shelley Winters Project comes to Club Helsinki on Friday, May 2

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 30, 2003) – When Rick Berlin first began playing rock music professionally 30 years ago, it was a very different time with a very different feeling.

“There was a lot of innocence,” said Berlin in a recent phone interview from his home in Boston. “It was ‘Let’s have a band, let’s write songs, this is fun.’ In six months we were signed to Epic Records. I thought it was easy.”

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since the time when Berlin’s first band, Orchestra Luna, made its major-label debut. There have been a lot of bands since then too -- a lot of albums, a lot of concerts, and a lot of failed attempts, too.

But Berlin has persevered. And his latest effort, a band called the Shelley Winters Project that performs on Friday night at Club Helsinki at 9, is beginning to bear fruit, garnering critical acclaim, radio airplay, and curiosity from those who never forgot about one of Boston’s more intriguing rock ‘n’ roll legends.

Orchestra Luna looms large among those who remember it for its grandiose vision and eclectic approach. “Where the Who were content to write rock operas,” wrote one critic, Berlin “put opera to rock.” The band’s music and performance style anticipated the theatrical rock of Meat Loaf and the dramatic glam of Queen by several years.

The group was derailed, however, by creative and business difficulties, most notably the pressure to succeed commercially.

“It was a peculiar and endearing band,” said Berlin. “As time went on it became less about music and more about business – more about writing hit songs.”

That was where his next band, Berlin Airlift, came in. The early-‘80s albums by that group – one aptly called “Professionally Damaged” – were more overtly commercial than what came before. “We got on the radio,” said Berlin, but not enough to make the jump to national success.

As a result, Berlin went back to his roots, blurring the borders between rock music and performance art by variously employing a mime, female backup singers and other visual elements into his shows.

A few bands later, including “one extremely loud mess,” Berlin started all over by singing and playing piano solo.

“Playing alone was terrifying, but I was pretty happy,” said Berlin. “It was revelatory. Taking what was going on in my life and others around me and just expressing it in songs on piano. I hadn’t ever wanted to have a band again. It seemed played out in my case.”

But it was inevitable that eventually a band would once again coalesce around Berlin. First he and guitarist David Berndt began a six-month residency at the Lizard Lounge. Then he saw a female violinist playing with another group and became intrigued with the idea of adding that color tone to his musical palette. In short order, a bassist and drummer were on board, and the Shelley Winters Project – which plays a dizzying fusion of Beatlesque pop, art-rock and cabaret -- was formed as a vehicle for Berlin’s eclectic creations.

“The Shelley Winters Project seems to have drawn on everything that’s come before, taking the best parts but leaving the cumbersome parts behind,” said Berlin “It’s more professional, and the players are all extraordinary.”

“I was all over the place in Orchestra Luna, which was fun at the time. We had songs that changed genre within a song nine times. We still do some of that. But it’s more about what I’ve unlearned. I’d say it’s trying to get to the truth of what goes on.”

The name of the group also draws attention. When fans too young to know better aren’t mistaking violinist Meredith Cooper for a woman named Shelley Winters, people are curious about why the band is named after the famed actress, best known for her performance in the disaster epic, “The Poseidon Adventure.”

“It was a fluke,” explained Berlin. “We had three-hundred names on four pages. We were going to call it ‘Holden Caufield’ or something. That was the only name that everyone in the band seemed to like. Then I read her biography and remembered seeing her movies.”

A few months ago, Berlin received an e-mail from someone claiming to be a friend of Winters and saying that she wanted to talk to him. He thought he was busted. “I thought she was going to be furious,” he said.

As it turned out, when she did finally call, things went very well.

“She called and said, ‘Hello, this is Shelley Winters,’ in that amazing voice,” said Berlin. “She asked about the instrumentation of the band, and asked why we named it after her, and after I explained it she said it made her feel really good.

“It touched her in a way, that she was still alive and well in people’s minds well beyond ‘The Poseidon Adventure.’ She gave me her phone number and address. It was like talking to a Jewish grandmother. She was incredibly warm, unintimidating and unchallenging.”

At age 58, Berlin is pushing into territory where few viable, creative rockers have gone before. But he’s not quite ready to hang up his rock ‘n’ roll shoes just yet.

“I really still love all of it -- I like loading in and loading out, rehearsing and having new songs come to life on stage,” he said. “And I love being onstage and performing. For better or worse, your identity gets pretty fixed at this point in your life.

“I don’t know what I’m going to be like when I can’t do this any more. I’ve been a waiter at Doyle’s for sixteen years. If the horse dies, I’ll know it, but it’s really invigorating right now.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 2, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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