Tommy Malone's van was stolen, gutted and left for dead last week -- and all Malone could do was laugh. For the former co-leader of the subdudes and Tiny Town, his hobbled van is somehow symbolic of his fledgling solo career, which so far has been a bumpy ride.
"Strange times indeed," says Malone, who's been on the road most of the summer promoting his debut CD, Soul Heavy, which was released just before Jazz Fest. "My band just quit, and I feel like I'm starting from scratch again."
That's a feeling Malone now knows well. After more than three decades entrenched in the decision-making democracy of numerous bands, and the demise of his last band Tiny Town, the gifted singer, songwriter and guitarist decided to go it on his own in late 1999. The prospect was liberating, but after the relative success of his last two groups -- particularly the subdudes -- it was also daunting. No bandmates. No record label. No manager. No booking agent. No gigs. No steady income.
Malone couldn't reacquaint himself with the business end of his career without making new music first. He started writing and recording on a four-track recorder in his house, and figuring out the sound he wanted to frame his new songs. It came slowly, in snippets and textures that sometimes proved fleeting. Listeners needed a scorecard to keep track of the musicians who backed up Malone in his live shows.
"It's just been so schizoid with my band, and I think people don't ever know what they've going to see," says Malone. Drummer Johnny Vidacovich, percussionist Rosy Rosado, drummer Nicole Falzone, and guitarists John Fohl and Peter Holsapple have all come and gone. The one constant, bassist/guitarist Ray Ganucheau, just left. Other band commitments are a factor for the likes of Vidacovich, but there's also the reality of getting in the van and putting in some grueling roadwork to bring Malone to new audiences.
"It's been hard, but every now and then really rewarding," says Malone. "We have a few cities where it feels like there's something really going on. Chicago has been like that, Dallas was good, Annapolis was good. Austin was great -- we played the KGSR [radio station] festival, in the time slot between Robert Cray and Ray Charles."
For Malone, perhaps his biggest challenge is reconciling his two very distinct musical personalities. There's the acoustic Malone, whose rhythmic guitar fingerpicking, combined with warm melodies and catchy song choruses, make him a natural for pop and folk audiences. Then there's the electric Malone, who plays mighty guitar leads and solos straight from the pages of the Yardbirds' blues-rock triumvirate of Clapton, Page and Beck, and has a fanbase in the roots-music community.
You can hear that dichotomy on Soul Heavy, which was partially recorded in California and sometimes sounds like the work of two men. "I tend to gravitate toward the more acoustic, introspective stuff when I write," says Malone. "That's what naturally comes out. But when we started to record the album, [executive producer] Jimmy [Hormel] really wanted some of that electric, funky stuff on there."
It makes for a sometimes jarring listen, as Malone moves from a syncopated wah-wah workout on the good-time groove of "Virginia St.," to the moody and spare title track, and later to the New Orleans R&B rave-up "Oh Baby." The other surprise ingredient in the mix is a pair of songs, "Fat Tuesday" and "Somebody Got Caught," which use long narratives and subtle, sometimes impenetrable imagery, playing out like cryptic novellas wrapped in song choruses.
The one glorious thread holding it all together is Malone's voice. Simply put, he's one of the best soul singers this city has produced, blessed with the pure timbre and hint of smoke reminiscent of all-time greats like Felix Cavaliere (of Rascals fame) and Spencer Davis-era Steve Winwood. Few singers would even dare attempt a version of Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone" -- as Malone did on the subdudes' 1991 Lucky album -- let alone pull it off with respect and originality.
With that much talent, Malone deserves to reach a wider audience. But stolen vans and hard-to-keep bands are part of the road to that goal, and Malone is gamely back out on the highway. True to form, he's absorbed the bumps of the last two years, and is already planning his next step.
"I'm going to work this record as much as I can, probably through November," says Malone. "But I'm already thinking about recording again, and I'd like it to be at home. I want to spread it out with some of the people I've played with over the years, and get a lot of people involved on the next one. It's going to be acoustic-based, more organic, and I'm going to leave the funk world alone. I want it to have a real down-home feel."
- 'I feel like I'm starting from scratch again.' -- Tommy Malone