'Victory Gardens' evokes early work
by: Peter Blackstock
"My dad calls me the Pete Best of Jamestown," John Lombardo said with a laugh as he talked about 10,000 Maniacs, the popular band from Jamestown, N.Y., that Lombardo co-founded 10 years ago.
Lombardo left the Maniacs in 1986, just before the band broke through to the big time with its 1987 platinum album In My Tribe. After a couple of years out of the limelight, Lombardo recently resurfaced as half of the duo John and Mary, whose debut album Victory Gardens was released by Rykodisc a couple of months ago.
For 10,000 Maniacs fans familiar with the band's work prior to In My Tribe, Lombardo's influence is instantly recognizable upon listening to Victory Gardens. Whereas the Maniacs now fit comfortably into the pop mainstream, in the mid-'80s they were perhaps best classified as a folk-rock act. It's likely that the folk influences came primarily from Lombardo because the upbeat acoustic melodies that dominate Victory Gardens sound remarkably like outtakes from the 1985 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair, Lombardo's last with the group.
Lombardo was the Maniacs' primary songwriter, and in retrospect it seems likely that the group's commercial potential was hampered by having an overload of musical ideas. When the rest of the band members picked up the songwriting slack after Lombardo left, their sound became more focused, their approach more direct.
"When I left, I sort of took my new songs under my arm, and I just thought, 'Well, these are good songs, I can just get some other players together. I really underestimated how committed and how good this group (the Maniacs) was," Lombardo said.
"But I was always able to look at it realistically and say that had I stayed with the group, there's no guarantee at all that the success would have been the same as it turned out to be. When you subtract me from the formula, maybe there was something about the vision I had that would have precluded us from ever reaching that level."
For a while, the split was difficult for Lombardo. "I guess I was just trying to convince people that we had to rearrange our priorities, and my priorities were different than other people's. I think it also had to do with the fact that my role in the group was diminishing.... I look back on that period now and I can't figure out where my head was at. Everything I was doing at the time seemed logical enough, but now as I look back, it was really a strange period. And I'd be sitting home, seeing the Maniacs on TV - it was kind of traumatic in some ways."
Lombardo moved from Jamestown to Buffalo and played for a while with a band called the Hopheads before hooking up with singer/viola player Mary Ramsey, who had been performing with the Lexington String Trio. The duo eventually signed to prominent independent label Rykodisc with the help of Dan Griffin, formerly a tour manager for the Maniacs.
With Ramsey's delicately melodic voice serving as the lead vocal on most of the songs and 10,000 Maniacs members Robert Buck and Jerome Augustyniak contributing guitar and drum tracks, the duo is likely to receive comparisons to Lombardo's former band. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, because most listeners who like 10,000 Maniacs probably will enjoy Victory Gardens as well.
The recording sessions for the album took a turn through Austin last summer when Lombardo decided to seek out his longtime musical idol Ronnie Lane to contribute a backing vocal on one of the songs. Lombardo had been a big fan of Lane's work with the Small Faces and the Faces in the 1960s.
"Of any musician in the world, Ronnie's my favorite," Lombardo said. "I was just sitting around talking to Dan one day and I said if I ever got a chance, I would really love to work with Ronnie on a record."
"Well, next thing I know, Dan got on the phone and got in touch with Paul Swick (Lane's manager), who he had known somehow through working with touring. The idea was presented to Paul, and then he presented it to Ronnie, and they gave me a phone number to call him. I mean, here it is, I'm calling up my all-time hero and asking him to do some work with me."
Lane was agreeable to the idea, so last July Lombardo spent a day at Austin's Arlyn Studios adding a backing vocal to the song We Have Nothing. Lombardo took advantage of his time in town and also tracked down Texas Tornados keyboardist Augie Meyers, another of Lombardo's heroes from Meyers' early days in the Sir Douglas Quintet. Meyers wound up playing accordion on the song Un Canadien Errant.
Lombardo's list of musical mentors includes quite a few musicians who now call Austin home. He also mentioned guitarist Iain Matthews, the former Fairport Convention guitarist who moved to Austin last year. "My favorite people of all time are people like Iain, and Gram Parsons, and Richie Furay." he said. "I've always just felt linked with people who had this sort of desperate inner vision but weren't particularly good at catching on with the masses."
Perhaps the not-catching-on-with-the-masses bit explains the connection with Austin, a town renowned for critically acclaimed acts that have never been huge commercial successes. It's a condition that Austinites often consider an unfortunate dilemma, but it doesn't seem to bother Lombardo, even after watching his former band reach a mass audience.
"It just seems that commercial success was not what I was looking for at all," he said. "And it's not really what I'm looking for with Mary and I either, although it would be nice to make a living. But as far as all the other trappings - well, it would be good if you could do it on your own terms."