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Soundbites: Trouble & Together at the Flynn

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Published April 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


From top left: Jeff Salisbury, Jimmy Sheldon-Dean, Paul Asbell and Chuck Eller; Phoebe, Abby and Hannah Sheldon-Dean; Michael Manring; Brian Johnson; and Bob Butterfield - COURTESY OF JIMMY SHELDON-DEAN
  • Courtesy Of Jimmy Sheldon-Dean
  • From top left: Jeff Salisbury, Jimmy Sheldon-Dean, Paul Asbell and Chuck Eller; Phoebe, Abby and Hannah Sheldon-Dean; Michael Manring; Brian Johnson; and Bob Butterfield

"As I walk through this wicked world, / searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity, / I ask myself, 'Is all hope lost? / Is there only pain and hatred and misery?'"

So go the opening lines of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," written by English songwriter Nick Lowe in 1974 and made famous in 1979 by Elvis Costello & the Attractions. I've been attuned to this song lately as I've been experiencing debilitating bouts of empathy. Maybe it's all the dire news abroad. Maybe it's the election year filling me with anxiety. Or maybe I shouldn't have rewatched Koyaanisqatsi the other night.

Anyway, throw in a little Vermont earthquake just before a total solar eclipse, and I'm, as they say, really feeling it all right now.

Music and empathy are close bedfellows. Sure, some sociopaths say things like "I don't like music" — back away from those people slowly, then immediately delete their number. But one of the most powerful things music can do for most of us is to activate, well, peace, love and understanding. Researchers at Southern Methodist University in Texas even discovered that people with higher levels of empathy enjoy music more than do those with lower levels, according to the 2018 study "Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening."

"When we listen to music or engage in music, it's essentially social engagement," lead researcher Zachary Wallmark told Greater Good Magazine. "Higher-empathy people, who are more sensitive to social stimulus, hear music as if in the virtual presence of another person."

Maybe that's why people turn to music in times of trouble: It doesn't just remind us of better times, it makes us feel less alone.

You don't need to tell that to Jimmy Sheldon-Dean. Lately, the 73-year-old Charlotte resident has been pondering music's role in weathering hard times, from political turmoil to more personal concerns such as aging and the loss of friends.

"I'm sure there's a more eloquent way to put it, but, well ... things are fucked up out there," Sheldon-Dean said by phone. "We have to come together and do better. And one of the best ways I know how to engage with people on that level is through song."

Sheldon-Dean has pulled together a brand-new band featuring some of the best Vermont musicians of his generation, including guitarist Paul Asbell, drummer Jeff Salisbury and keyboardist Chuck Eller. Called Jimmy's Party of Nine, it performs a two-night stand at the Flynn Space in downtown Burlington this Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13.

For Sheldon-Dean, the group realizes a long-held goal. Though he grew up playing in high school bands, he put away his bass guitar once he started a family. That changed after his wife, Abby Sheldon-Dean, took a singing course at the Flynn about 20 years ago. She needed accompaniment while she practiced, so Sheldon-Dean dusted off his trusted 1963 Fender Jazz bass and they launched Abby's Agenda, a husband-and-wife duo with Salisbury on drums.

"After that, I got really inspired to get my game squared away on the bass," Sheldon-Dean said. He attended workshops and bass camps, where he met Asbell and Eller, longtime giants of the local jazz scene who served as instructors at the Vermont Blues Retreat.

"Those guys got to hear me play, and they liked what they heard enough that when I wanted to put on my own show, they agreed to play with me," Sheldon-Dean recalled. He and his crew of faculty-turned-bandmates gathered periodically, and a smaller version of the band played at the Flynn Space in 2010. But Sheldon-Dean, a retired software development consultant, dreamed of assembling a larger band to play a very specific repertoire.

"I really wanted to put together a set of my influences, the songs on my permanent playlist," he explained. "It's the music of the '60s and '70s, yes. But there's no Beatles or [Rolling] Stones — these are deeper cuts than that."

He dubbed the show "Trouble and Together" as a nod to the songs' thematic bond. Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, the Youngbloods, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell feature heavily in a set that Sheldon-Dean envisions as a message of hope during dark times.

"When I give people the elevator speech on this show, that it's about the troubles we all face and coming together to overcome them — unity over division — the reaction I'm getting is 'Hell, yes,'" Sheldon-Dean said.

If a sense of mortality comes through in some of the selected tracks, Sheldon-Dean said that's deliberate. Vermont has lost several musicians from the generation that defined the local scene in the 1970s and '80s, including Bruce McKenzie, Jim McGinniss and Mark Ransom, in the past several years. Saxophonist Joe Moore had planned to be part of Jimmy's Party of Nine, but he had to pull out for health reasons and died last month.

"Joe's passing was a tremendous shock, and we all miss him beyond words," Sheldon-Dean said. "I was already looking forward to having another reason to work with him down the road, but no more."

As he ages, Sheldon-Dean said, he has grown accustomed to seeing his friends and fellow musicians exit the stage.

When the group plays the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's "Born in Chicago," Sheldon-Dean alters the lyrics to include the names of high school friends who have died.

"Hopefully I don't have to add any more names before the shows," he said with a wry laugh. "But that's the thing: You offset the loss with community, with music."

The band is a family affair for Sheldon-Dean, with his wife and their daughters, Phoebe and Hannah, singing on many songs. Percussionist Brian Johnson and a special guest, Grammy-nominated bassist Michael Manring, round out the band.

"It's pretty crazy for a guy like me to have this amazing band behind him," Sheldon-Dean said. "But this is the first time the band has ever existed, and it's not like we're going to go on tour or anything. We're a bunch of septuagenarians — that's not happening, man."

He noted with a laugh that even rehearsing for the shows has had its share of challenges. "We're not spring chickens, obviously."

Lining up rehearsals with band members in far-flung locales such as Brooklyn and Texas complicated matters. "We've had to schedule around doctor's appointments and family vacations, all that kind of stuff, to find time to rehearse what is some pretty tricky material," Sheldon-Dean said. Knowing this particular ensemble might never have an encore, he made sure the shows would be free and open to the public.

Sheldon-Dean admits that one big reason he put his dream band together was simply to play in it, surrounded by talent he'd admired for decades. But the opportunity to get a message across was equally important.

"One of the last songs we're going to play is '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,'" he revealed. "Everything that song is about is still relevant today. Hell, all of these songs are relevant to what's happening in the world — things haven't changed too much in that regard."

Reserve seats for the show at flynnvt.org.

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