Editor’s Note: For the past 10 months we’ve been using the same format almost every week, a song from the vault and a post about that song by the always informative and entertaining Dave Thomas for an inside look at the creation and evolution of their music. This week we’re coming from a completely different perspective with our first guest post by Rechavia Berman, one of Native’s earliest supporters. Check out his blog or give him a follow on Twitter if you enjoy the post!
Sup y’all? If you’re reading this, chances are you know Native or are getting to – and congrats on a most positive addition to your life in that case.
I’ve been following this band longer than most. Not to brag, just to explain why I’mma bother you, dear reader, with my thoughts on this band from a time and place 20 years in the rear-view mirror.
It was… spring or early summer* of 1992. I had recently moved back to the States from Israel, and was shacking with my cousin, Dr. Dean Weiss, pending the acquisition of my own rented digs in Brooklyn. Doc Dean, then still a med student, told me about a buddy of his who was a drummer in this band and let’s go check them out.
The gig was at Nightingale’s, on 14th and 2nd in Manhattan, and probably my first taste of a hardcore New York rock club. It was Native’s 6th gig ever and Anthony Ballsley, he of the majestic rock singer voice, was still the front-man. Most of the set from that night has probably accumulated on Nativology, but I can effortlessly list 4 songs or more that I still like and probably first heard on that night – The Sea, Something Worth Remembering, Blue Room, I Am. I’m not a music-maven now and was far, far less of one back then, but I liked what I’d heard enough to tell cuz Dean to keep me posted on chances to see his buddy’s band.
The more we checked them out, the more I liked them, and quickly the number of original songs they had that I really liked far exceeded an album or even a double album’s worth. But almost as rapidly, a question of objectivity developed: Do I dig these guys so much because of their music, or because I happened to meet them and was kindly made welcome to hang with them to the point that they and their friends became one of, if not the major part of my social life? I mean, not that they were so successful as to warrant it being a highly-sought privilege, but I’d met musicians before who were equally away from stardom but had the attitude down pat.
Anyway – was it the music or the friendship? In sports terms, was I being a homer? Now, I was never so star-struck as to not be aware of the band’s limitations. If I was, my cuz, a harsh critic with perfect musical hearing and high standards, was there to talk me down. I knew that the only thing the band had to put against the best in the world, or even just its capital of New York City, was the Late, Great Michael Jaimes on guitar. But sometimes the whole really is greater than its parts. Mat and Woody (and Dave when he insisted enough) are great songwriters, Mike was a master musician and not just a boy who could strum with the rhythm that the drivers make, and led the crafting of beautiful compositions and riffs. But the doubt still nagged, despite all the wonderful nights at McGovern’s, Wetlands, Flannery’s and the festival road trips. Was it just those hours when the guys were on stage and me and the rest of fans were groovin’ down below, or more the ones at the loft watching football, shooting the breeze and just chillin’?
In late 1997 I moved back to Israel for a job offer that started my translating career. I had some cassettes of Native plus the first two albums on disc, and tried to get people here to show even close to the pleasure I got from the music, even after the actual companionship of the band and members of the Native family were left behind a sea and an ocean. Very few came close. There are objective reasons for this – the traditions of music Native is most prominently influenced by are not at all big here. There are Dead fans here but not many, funk is enjoyed but not heavily followed, and only people seriously into rock/blues know who Stevie Ray Vaughan was. I firmly believe that I am the only dedicated Israeli Native fan. I know I was the only Israeli in the family (shout-out here to family member George, who is of Palestinian descent. May the wrongs my people did to yours be recognized and corrected to the extent possible in our lifetime).
Even people here who knew music, while unable to deny the skills of the guitar player, failed to find the whole enough to be wowed by. I was fine with it being my private thing and with the possibility that it’s more the memories than the music, but 5.5 years in NYC hanging with knowledgeable musicians did rub off. I now worship at the altar of SRV, and wanted to believe that I was right in thinking Mike could have held his own with the great Texan on stage. And with God (AKA Eric Clapton), and with… alla those guys. And that Native as a whole could have opened for them strictly on merit.
In late 2006, while on the phone with Native’s drummer Dave Thomas (who was always my closest friend in the band), I got the terrible news: “Have you heard?” – heard what? – “(pause…) We lost a brother.” The death of my mother at 68, although naturally even more painful, didn’t come close to this news in terms of sheer shock.
With Mike’s untimely passing at age 39, the Native story seemed ended for good, despite a NYC jam-band-community-star-studded memorial concert that brought everyone together one more time from all around the country (and which I was of course unable to attend). Even in the age of the Internet, all that was available were some low-quality live videos uploaded by Native’s master soundman John Fitzwater. These, though enjoyable to me, were of no use in convincing my friends what a great band this was.
Then came the blessed invention of social media. One day I come across tweets about a band called Native. Sure enough, it was none other than my old buddy Kassandraa, a lil redheaded font of inexhaustible energy who began following and working for Native in the mid-90s before she was legally supposed to be at the gigs…
Soon came re-connections with various fam members on twitter and facebook, and joy of joys – Native’s new bandcamp site with full albums; then 20 years after those first gigs, the wonderful Nativology initiative, which brought back great songs never released on the band’s CD’s, such as the seminal Santana-style jam “Water”, the lovely “Heavy Hearted”, and many more.
And now, after several opportunities to use cookout guests as a captive audience, I finally had my answer – it was totally the music. The friendships were just a wonderful bonus. On Independence Day 2012, halfway through “Exhale on Spring Street”, a guest asked me “Who are these guys? They sound really good.” Then a couple months ago, after another 4 hour cookout during which I played 2 full Native albums and almost all of Nativology Vol 1, offered to switch after a couple of hours to different tunes and was told “no no, this is excellent,” I no longer had any doubts.
So go to any of albums accessible through the “music and more” link above this text, kick back and let the notes wash over you. Even if you don’t know these guys personally, it doesn’t matter. Oh my but these boys could play, and now we have the fruit of their talents for as long as the World Wide Web will stand.