For most music fans, Saratoga Springs bassmaster Tony Markellis is known simply as the bass player in the Trey Anastasio Band. But he’s so much more than that. His musical career has spanned nearly four decades, and along the way, he’s lent his considerable musical talents to everyone from David Bromberg to the Mamas & the Papas.
But he’s also one of the major movers & shakers on the Nippertown music scene, performing with and often producing some of the Local 518’s best musicians – from Michael Jerling and Rosanne Raneri to Jo Henley and the pre-Railbird Sarah Pedinotti Band.
Now he’s helping to shine a light on some of that local talent by curating and performing at a series of shows at Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs. The series kicks off at 10pm on Thursday with a show by the Mississippi Hot Dogs, featuring Markellis, Kevin Maul and Railbird’s Chris Kyle and Chris Carey. Admission is $7.
So we thought we’d take this opportunity to chat with Markellis about his own musical career and the wealth of talent to be found here in Nippertown:
Q: You’re originally from Montana, right? So how did you end up in Saratoga?
A: I left the University of Michigan and came east to play with great songwriter named Joel Zoss, who was living on Martha’s Vineyard. I spent the winter of 1972-73 out there with him. I hitchhiked to Saratoga that Christmas to see some friends, including Utah Phillips – none of whom, it turned out, were actually there.
As she so often did, Lena Spencer welcomed me into her home, and I spent a nice Christmas with her and a bunch of people I’d never met before. I got a very friendly impression of Saratoga and the people who lived there. I went back to the Vineyard, but later that spring I began a two-year stint on the road with the David Bromberg Band. After I left the band in 1974, I just kind of stuck around the northeast. I lived at a recording studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for a year, during which time I began playing and recording with the Saratoga-based songwriter Tom Mitchell. I started spending a lot of time in Saratoga, and it just seemed to make sense to move here.
Q: What is it about the Capital Region that keeps you here?
A: It’s most likely because of the articulate, knowledgeable and generous music writers in the local media – just how lucky are we? Honestly, it’s probably inertia more than anything else – I’m unbelievably lazy. But over the years I’ve been here, I’ve befriended and gotten to work with some phenomenally talented songwriters and musicians, including Michael Jerling, Bob Warren, Rosanne Raneri, Chris Shaw & Bridget Ball, Kevin Maul, Dale Haskell, Mark Tolstrup, Sarah Pedinotti, Camille West – the list goes on and on.
Q: How did you discover that music was your calling?
A: I’m not sure I ever really did – it just snuck up on me. I started playing bass in the school orchestra in third grade, and got involved in rock bands and folk groups and such in my teen years, but I never really studied music formally. In college I was studying art and anthropology, but I was also playing all over Michigan in a rock band. I had occasional opportunities to back up great blues artists like Johnny Shines at the Blind Pig, and I started getting calls from the people who ran the Ark Coffeehouse to play with visiting artists such as Paul Siebel and Rosalie Sorrels, both of whom I have played, recorded and traveled with for years, and still consider close friends. When I got the call to go east and play with Joel Zoss, I couldn’t resist.
Q: I can’t actually remember the first time that I met you, but I seem to recall you playing with Professor Longhair at the Philadelphia Folk Festival when I was there playing with the Star Spangled Washboard Band. Is that right? Any idea what year that was?
A: Man! Do you get some points for remembering that! It was August of 1975. I vividly remember hearing the Star Spangled Washboard Band there for the first time. I played at that festival just about every year in the ’70s and early ’80s – with David Bromberg, Paul Siebel, Rosalie Sorrels, David Amram, Martin, Bogan & Armstrong, David Nichtern, and many others. That was the year that Quint Davis of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival rediscovered Fess and got him working again; I think that Philly festival was his first big appearance outside of New Orleans.
I was sitting backstage minding my own business, and someone said, “Hey, do you want to play with Professor Longhair? His bass player got sick and couldn’t make the trip.” The next thing I knew, I was up in front of 20 or 30,000 people, playing Mardi Gras mambos! What a scary (but fun) honor that was for a 22-year-old kid. If I remember correctly, I didn’t screw anything up too badly (at least not badly enough for anyone to shoot, stab or yell at me).
Coincidentally, I almost got to play with Merle Travis at that same festival as well – how cool would that have made an already too-cool weekend?
Q: How did this series at Putnam Den come about? Your idea? Their idea? What is
your concept for the series? How many shows do you see coming up in the series?
A: It was my idea, and I’m so glad that the Putnam Den was open to it. My thinking was this: the majority of music fans who know me probably know me from my work with the Trey Anastasio Band, which at events such as Bonnaroo or the Austin City Limits Festival sometimes puts me in front of crowds of 100,000 people. I want to try to use whatever recognition I may have in order to draw some long-overdue attention to some of the great musicians I work with in this area.
I know those TAB fans are open to some new input; they just need to know where to look for it. I would like to do as many of these shows as possible – as long as the club finds it viable, the musicians are interested and the crowds keep coming back. For starters, I want to present some of the roots music that I am so fond of. Depending on how well the series is received, maybe later we can branch out into other realms.
The first show, at 10pm on Thursday (December 1), is going to feature the Mississippi Hot Dogs – an informal two-generation hybrid super group featuring the legendary Kevin Maul (slide guitar and vocals), the incomparably twangy Chris Kyle (electric guitar), the excessively talented Chris Carey (drums) and my own self on bass. Although only in their twenties, those two Chrises (both from Railbird) really get old-school roots rock!
The second show, scheduled for Friday, December 30, will feature acoustic blues power trio No Outlet (Kevin Maul – dobro, Hawaiian guitar & vocals; Dale Haskell – drums & vocals; and myself on bass). That group’s repertoire runs the gamut from Thelonious Monk to Little Jimmy Dickens. As you know, Kevin is a slide guitar virtuoso, and Dale has one of the great voices out there today.
For the third show in early February, I’m planning to feature another great local blues trio, Street Corner Holler (Mark Tolstrup on slide guitar and vocals; Dale Haskell on drums and vocals; and yours truly on bass). Those two guys are as intense as it gets.
Q: Obviously, you’re an exceptionally talented bass player, but you’re also a mighty fine producer. What are some of the records that you’re most proud of on the producing end of things?
A: You could spoil a guy with that kind of talk!
It’s difficult to answer that question; I have learned so much with each new project. The
biggest challenge I’ve found in producing recordings of songwriters who usually perform unaccompanied is in striking a balance between the unadorned sound that their fans are used to hearing in live performance and the full orchestral arrangements that the artist has been hearing in his or her head (but has never been able to afford). The fans become very protective of their favorite songs, and usually think that the ‘evil producer’ has forced a new sound on their beloved artist. As often as not, it’s just the opposite – the producer is trying to restrain the artist from overdoing it now that they have the opportunity.
Some of the recordings I’m proudest of are some of the earliest ones – where none of us knew anything about what we were doing, and where there was virtually no budget, but we still came up with a decent record. The few times when I’ve actually had a budget to work with, it seems so luxurious. Michael Jerling’s “New Suit of Clothes” (Shanachie) was the first one of those; we were actually able to take our time and work on it until it was exactly how we wanted it. Some of my fondest production memories are of the times I’ve gotten to go to places like New Orleans in search of musicians to add just the right flavor or texture, and the various adventures and misadventures involved in tracking down those musicians.
Q: The obligatory: How did you meet Trey Anastasio? And how did you end up in his band?
A: For many years since 1974, I spent nearly half of my time in Burlington, Vermont – initially because of studio work for Philo Records, and later because of the Latin/jazz/blues fusion band Kilimanjaro and its offshoot, the Unknown Blues Band (featuring the late Big Joe Burrell). When we weren’t touring, we played for years at a great club called Hunt’s on Main Street in Burlington. The first day he came to Burlington to look at colleges, young Trey wandered into Hunt’s, and we happened to be playing; he claims that’s what made him decide to stay in Burlington. He would come out dancing whenever we were there. He brought Sue, now his wife, out to see us on their first date; we later played at their wedding.
In 1998, Trey had an idea to put together a side project. Thinking that I would add a solid, no-nonsense backbone to the music, he got in touch. We got together with the wonderful drummer Russ Lawton and wrote close to a dozen songs in a couple of days, most of which are still part of our (and also Phish’s) repertoire. I’m glad to report that we’re all still playing together as often as we can.
Q: Is it at all strange for you to be playing in front of thousands of people with TAB one night, and then a couple of dozen fans at Caffè Lena the next?
A: Not at all – I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it’s essential for a musician’s professional development for him to get comfortable playing under as many different conditions as possible. If you only play at Carnegie Hall, but have never played at a bowling alley or a wedding or a Harley Rendezvous, or outdoors in the rain or snow, or slept on a pool table after playing at some roadhouse in Petoskey, Michigan (which I’ve done, and, believe it or not, that green felt doesn’t do much to pad that slate top), then you have really missed out.
Q: You’ve had a long-standing relationship with Caffè Lena. And obviously you’ve played all around the country. What is it that makes Caffè Lena so special?
A: It’s such an intimate setting, it attracts such an intelligent, attentive and respectful audience. The Caffè is still alive and well today, thanks not only to the dedication of all the people who have kept it going for the 20 years since Lena’s passing, but in large part to the strength of her dream – that it has been able to inspire as many people as it has for this long.
Q: You’ve worked with any number of marvelous local musicians from Michael Jerling to Railbird to Rosanne Raneri and more. Is there anyone on the local scene that you’d really love to work with? Or whose music really moves you?
A: I consider myself extremely lucky to have played with the people I have; I just hope I’m able to use some of my celebrity (real or imagined) to help some of them acquire more of an audience. I’m so fortunate to have gotten to play, if only a couple of times, with the late great Nick Brignola. I hope I’ll get more opportunities in the future to play with pianist Dave Payette – what a genius – and likewise with Rosanne Raneri – is there a better singer in the world?
Q: Anything else you want to say?
A: I hope that Nippertown readers will keep an eye on the upcoming listings, and trust that my ‘seal of approval’ means they are going to hear some music they are going to enjoy. Maybe it won’t be what they’re used to listening to, but I hope they’ll at least come out and give it a chance.
The Mississippi Hot Dogs – featuring Tony Markellis, Kevin Maul, Chris Kyle and Chris Carey – take over the stage at Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs at 10pm on Thursday (December 1) for the first in a series of Tony Markellis Presents shows. Admission is $7.