Since early last year, Burlington's tiny Radio Bean Cafe has played host to the town's most raucous weekly party. Inspired and usually off-the-cuff, "Honky-Tonk Tuesday" features a rotating cast of musicians under the gregarious guidance of Queen City twang-meister Brett Hughes. It's always a rollicking good time, provided you can get in the door.
Lately, ex-Phish bassist Mike Gordon has been seen holding down the low end. In addition to Hughes, regulars include local vocalist/keyboardist Marie Claire, drummer/ songwriter Neil Cleary, banjo and pedal-steel legend Gordon Stone and vocalist Aya Inoue. And all of 'em -- along with Max Creek axeman Scott Murawski -- comprise Ramble Dove, a "supergroup" that's taking the countrified jam session on the road.
The band will play the wildly popular Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee on June 17. In between are dates at Boston's Paradise and Irving Plaza in the Big Apple. And this week at the Higher Ground Ballroom, they'll "Honky-Tonk the Vote" in a benefit for Bernie Sanders' Senate campaign. Vermont superstars Grace Potter and Jon Fishman will make guest appearances.
"The Bernie benefit came up when I saw him speak at a dinner at Shelburne Farms," says Gordon. "I was really blown away by the stuff he was talking about. He went into a lot of detail about the state of affairs in Washington. I got all fired up about it. So I called Brett and said, 'I don't know what your politics are, but there's this Bernie thing happening.' Brett said, 'I would knock on every door in the state for Bernie.'"
Sanders appreciates the support. "It's great for Mike and the other musicians to be involved," says the Congressman. "Young people need to feel their participation can make a difference."
Ramble Dove take their name from a fanciful country band featured in Gordon's 2000 film Outside Out. Burlington's RD have a major affinity for whiskey-soaked foot-stompers and broken-heart ballads. Tunes by country greats Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones and Buck Owens are part of their growing repertoire. "I need an intern," exclaims Hughes as he sorts through a song-stuffed binder during a recent rehearsal in his spacious Winooski pad. Finding one shouldn't be difficult considering the buzz about the band.
Gordon, on the other hand, needs no organizational assistance: He arrives at practice with highly detailed printouts for each bandmember, listing the tunes they have and haven't tried. As the Doves flutter in, they're given their own worksheets. It's doubtful the pickers of yesteryear were as organized.
But when Ramble Dove take flight, their carefree nature is revealed. Stone serves up lively pedal-steel licks as Hughes slips into the role of easygoing country crooner. Claire's piano chords are buoyant, and Gordon looks perfectly relaxed. From the laidback vibe, you'd never guess these players were gearing up for a string of high-profile dates.
As a former member of one of the most popular live acts in history, Gordon is no stranger to roadwork. Weekly jams at Radio Bean are a far cry from rocking Madison Square Garden, but he seems pleased to connect with audiences on a more intimate level. "The only bummer about it is when our friends are outside and the Bean has reached capacity," Gordon says. "But it's cozy, and you never know who's gonna come. That's a big thing I missed about being a 'rock star' -- not being so much a part of the community. I actually tried not coming on a Tuesday night a couple of weeks ago," he adds. "It just didn't feel right. "
The "Gordon factor" is partly responsible for the band's visibility -- they wouldn't be playing Bonnaroo without him. But Hughes maintains the music is the real draw. "At first, a lot of people came down that might have been just curious to see Mike," he says of the weekly Bean sessions. "But they keep coming back; they're really digging it. We're constantly getting new suggestions for songs. These people do their homework."
The members of Ramble Dove themselves have some cramming to do, but they don't seem too stressed. "So far, we've kept it pretty loose," says Hughes. "The Bean gig has been an opportunity to try songs on and see what fits. Some of 'em are fitting better and better."
Claire has a similar outlook. "Honky-tonk Tuesdays are the essence of the group," she says. "But the important part about it is playing with really great musicians and having a good time. We get the songs down well enough to play, but we want to keep it somewhat under-rehearsed to keep things spontaneous."
Over-rehearsing is probably not an option. Every member has other commitments, so scheduling practices is difficult. Claire performs solo and with indie-rockers Fire the Cannons. Hughes is the front man for both Monoprix and the Chrome Cowboys. Stone has a full plate with his trio, and Gordon is always pursuing new musical ventures.
"I can't really turn down touring work to play a weekly gig at Radio Bean," says Cleary, a sought-after sideman who has toured with the likes of singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, and is working on a new solo album. "After we committed to Bonnaroo and a week of shows, I was like, 'By the way, I'm leaving for a month,'" he says.
While everyone in Ramble Dove is a strong musician, some have had more twang time than others. Indie singer-songwriter Claire has had a crash course in old-school C&W. "Honky-tonk was a style that I never played before my first Tuesday night at Radio Bean," she concedes. "I was afraid at first; Brett can be a little intimidating. So I played one song and then kind of walked away. He was like, 'Sit your ass back down!' But it's easy when you're playing with people with such a good feel for it."
Ramble Dove's camaraderie is built on mutual respect. "It sounds corny, but Brett is the perfect person to front a band like this," says Cleary. "Because he's a magical, lucky bastard, and magic, lucky things just seem to happen around him. He's one of my favorite people on Earth to play with because he's so unabashedly joyful about music, and game for anything."
And when it comes to choosing the tunes, Hughes has done the math: "Country music has always been about 80-percent dreck," he says. "Maybe 15 percent is good, and about 5 percent is truly great. They're all really simple songs. What makes one of 'em get to you time after time is tough to nail down."
All these players want to keep the Tuesday-night tradition alive, but the future of Ramble Dove itself is less certain. "The festival and random gig offers are starting to roll in," Gordon says. "I don't know if our schedules will permit doing more, but it would be great if they did."