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Marinscope Weekender, June 2009 PDF Print E-mail

Musician-composer-arranger David Shapireau has worked in the shadow of some of the heaviest hitters on the American music scene. Now he’s stepping into the spotlight with his new band, West of Next.

Shapireau reshapes roots music and Tin Pan Alley into a sophisticated concoction with lyrics that comment on the personal, political, cultural and philosophical, sometimes humorous, sometimes dark. Harmonized bebop lines in the middle of a Johnny Cash-like song with lyrics about fate and luck. Movie theme music that sounds like the Ventures on Saturn. Daring and surprising arrangements with familiar cultural reference points that are molded into something new.

Shapireau and West of Next are coming to Marin June 11 to perform their fiercely original brand of “alternative Americana” music at Fairfax’s 19 Broadway Nite Club. We recently talked to Shapireau about his music …

Marinscope: What is the background and concept of your band?
Shapireau: I’ve been able to use my knowledge of stringed instruments and orchestral arranging to work with a wide range of musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Tower of Power, Maria Muldaur, David Grisman, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice. I’ve studied genres developed in various regions of the country that were authentic expressions of the people’s lifestyles: honky tonk, bluegrass, zydeco, jazz, western swing, Cajun, blues, rock, salsa, surf music, R&B and so on. The band does all original compositions inspired by many of these genres, with one added element. Commercial music — that is, music written to make a profit — can be great: Lennon and McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Porter, Gershwin, Ellington, Arlen and the like. The best of the lyrics and melodies and harmonies of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway have influenced my approach to words, along with those regional folk or root approaches. We play a variety of styles, featuring twin guitars a la Bob Wills or the Allman Brothers. We only have a quartet, so I do as much arranging from a jazz musician’s point of view as possible with limited orchestral possibilities. The result is a rock band that plays in an unusual way without being intellectually remote. I’ve tried to make it fun and accessible — and unpredictable. We’ll go from a simple country waltz to a mambo and than play something bluesy followed by science fiction surf music.

Could you tell us about your musical background?
I was always very curious about the exact details of what I was hearing, so I gravitated to arranging and then composing. At 21, I was touring Europe in an original-music duo. I moved to California and helped form the Norton Buffalo Stampede. Through Steve Miller we got on Capitol Records, making two albums and touring nationally throughout the second half of the ’70s. Interested in more complex ideas, I went to Boston's Berklee College of Music, studying composition.

What made you become a frontman after all this time?
I had led jazz bands playing my compositions in the past but never saw myself as a singing frontman. I always sang a few tunes and did harmonies, but that was it. I reached a point where I grew weary of having to play other people’s song selections in order to perform. A few years back, I started writing songs, got songwriting fever and ended up with over 350 songs. It took about six years to find musicians who had the necessary skills to play my eclectic ideas and were willing to rehearse and play because they believed in the music I was writing. I didn’t want to compromise anymore; I wanted to use all the ideas swirling in my imagination.

How do you like being a frontman for the first time this late in your career?
Yes, being a frontman is kind of cool. It’s a lot of responsibility to write the songs, write the charts, book the band, pay for everything and try to be entertaining when we perform. One more band on the scene trying to get noticed. However, there’s nothing as satisfying as that for an artist. I’m very grateful to these three musicians; it’s all worth it when we play the songs, and so far people seem to respond even when they’re not sure of what we’re doing.

Could you tell us about West of Next?
The drummer is an old pro, Tony Dey. He’s played with heavies like Linda Ronstadt, Van Morrison and Mike Bloomfield. Steve Randall is the other half of our twin-guitar sound and it was meeting him that started the nucleus of the group. It’s only been six months since we got our bass player, Paul Knutsen. At the audition he played all 16 songs off our CD perfectly, having learned them by ear. Now we have four musicians committed to what it takes to play challenging music.

What’s unique about your band?
I am that rare bird who loves and knows genres from rock and R&B to bluegrass and folk to modern jazz. You will hear little touches of jazz arrangement ideas and Broadway harmony even in songs that are more roots oriented.