Gothic fun from the Lonesome Brothers

Jim Armenti and Ray Mason aka The Lonesome Brothers, at Club Helsinki

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 5, 2004) – Not everyone has to be a star. That’s one reason why it’s so enjoyable to share an evening with the Lonesome Brothers, the nom-de-bande of long-running, Pioneer Valley-based, rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriters Jim Armenti and Ray Mason. Between the two of them they combine a good lifetime of experience playing rock, country, pop and a host of other music. On their own and together, they’ve carved out a terrific niche as regional performers of some renown. Their instrumental talent is extraordinary – either could easily hold their own with any national act, and I for one would love to see Bob Dylan shake things up by ditching his long-running road band and hiring the Lonesomes, including drummer Tom Shea, to inject some new life into his hardscrabble arrangements – and they are both prolific, top-notch songwriters.

But what makes them so fun to watch, as it was in the first of two sets on Saturday night at Club Helsinki, is the sheer joy they bring to their music and their performance. Armenti and Mason weren’t out to prove anything or trying to get ahead to anywhere or sell anything more than what was happening in the moment. After years of slugging it out in the trenches in bar bands, wedding bands and whatever else they’ve had to do to make ends meet, they have obviously come to terms with what they do, which is to play terrific, original, rootsy rock music that celebrates itself and the traditions from which it stems, including country, blues, rockabilly, pop, new wave, punk, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. They do it simply because it’s fun, they’re good at it, and they love it. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and it made for an extraordinarily relaxed night for listeners who could just sit back and hope to be able to enjoy the music as much as the musicians obviously did.

And that wasn’t too hard to do, especially if you came to the event with a love of fat, twangy guitar riffs played with unbelievably confident ease by Armenti, or of the sort of fat, funky bass lines laid down by Mason, or of shuffling, colorful rhythms banged out by Shea, whose main job in the Lonesomes is to stay out of the way of the singers and let them do their thing.

It helped if you had a taste for the sort of gothic Americana pioneered by artists like Neil Young and The Band, with close, bluegrass-derived harmonies and songs about eccentric characters who seek transcendence down by the river, or about needing to bury a dead friend, or about the sheer love of old rock ‘n’ roll records. Armenti and Mason shared vocal and songwriting duties, and each has a distinctive narrative style and sound. Still, they reminded more than one listener of Neil Young and Levon Helm respectively, although when Armenti sang high harmony the effect movingly recalled some of the late Rick Danko’s work echoing Helm.

Armenti and Mason were a striking presence even within their own informality, both presumably hovering around the half-century mark but each with heads of hair flowing down below their shoulders as if they walked right out of an old-fashioned country-rock band from 1972. Armenti was an encyclopedia of twangy guitar riffs, never showboating but filling the club with lots of music, his fingers dancing in and around his own and Mason’s vocals. In one of his songs, he sang a line that said there “never is time enough for all this fun.” You couldn’t come up with a better epigram to describe a Lonesome Brothers show.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 6, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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