Still getting their groove on
Boomers raised on rock, R&B still find the music a vital source of expression and healing
It looks like a typical Saturday night at the club: The band is belting out high-energy sounds and the crowd is sweaty from dancing with abandon.
Only it is not the midnight hour, but Sunday afternoon at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge, and the audience is decidedly tilted to an older crowd that may not rock like they used to, but won’t miss out on a thriving music scene they say keeps them vital.
For many boomers, rock music is a defining element of their generation and remains an essential source of both entertainment and inspiration. While rock may have started out as music by and for young people, just because they are older now is no reason for that generation to miss a back-beat.
“Some people wonder why I’m still doing it, but it’s because of the need for expression,’’ said Asa Brebner, a 58-year-old guitarist active in several bands who achieved some fame in the 1980s with Robin Lane & the Chartbusters. “It keeps you young. When you’ve done a great show and laid it all on the line, it’s very healing.’’
Musicians such as Brebner can work an active club circuit in the Boston area, where there is always a steady audience of friends and fans looking for the same engagement. On any given weekend, older music fans can find a crowd of boppin’ boomers at other clubs in the area - Radio and Sally O’Brien’s Bar in Somerville, or Smoken’ Joe’s in Brighton, for example.
“I come for the sense of community,’’ said Elaine Campbell, a 55-year-old Arlington resident who sees live music several days a week and was already on her second stop that Sunday at the Plough & Stars. “It’s a very special scene.’’
Susan Sullivan is a 60-something widow who credits the soothing salve of music with helping her recover from the death of her husband five years ago. She was living in the suburbs at the time, but moved to Somerville to be near the city’s burgeoning boomer scene. “It’s hard for single people over 50 or over 60 in the suburbs,’’ Sullivan said. “You get lost. You can play mahjong and bridge and golf, but it’s still lonely at night.’’
Sullivan also volunteers to do public relations work for local bands, including the act at Plough & Stars that Sunday. Fred Griffeth is a trim, charismatic singer who has become the king of weekend afternoon “residencies’’ at various clubs around town. His band that day is the Natural Wonders, which performs vintage R&B and includes his wife, Gail.
Griffeth may be pushing 70 but he keeps a young man’s tour schedule. He fronts two other bands: Fandango, a gospel-oriented group that performs every Wednesday at Toad in Cambridge; and the Family Jewels, which specializes in prerock music from the early ‘50s and includes Brebner on guitar, that often plays Saturday afternoon gigs at the Plough or Sally O’Brien’s.
While Griffeth is a dedicated walker - often circling the path around Fresh Pond - for him performing live is literally a healing proposition.
“I’ve gone on stage as sick as a dog,’’ Griffeth said between sets at the Plough. “But then I was cured when I started to sing. My sinuses cleared right up. I seriously believe in mind over matter.’’
Like Brebner, Griffeth too had his brush with big-time rock success - he was in the band Bagatelle that had national aspirations. Back then he remembers being more career-oriented with his music, “trying to cash in on popular trends to make some money. Now, I just do anything and everything that I love,’’ Griffeth added, “R&B, country, blues, gospel, folk, Cajun, soul, funk, standards - whatever. It’s a joy.’’
Bucky Bear is a 64-year-old bassist whose band the Radioactive Rustlers plays every other Friday evening at Sally O’Brien’s. Bear was an original hippie who remembers playing gigs as far back as 1969, at the now-defunct Sword & Stone Coffeehouse in Boston.
“None of us is doing it for the money,’’ Bear said.
“I’m making the same or less money than I made 30 years ago when you could barely live on it then. But how do you stop? It’s just something that becomes a part of you,’’ he added.
But the aging process has inevitably caught up to the rock generation.
They do not close out bars like they used to, and even jammin’ into the afternoon has its limits. Brebner, for example, has suffered recently from an impacted nerve in his wrist, but is trying to stave off having an operation.
For now the ‘50s sound of the Family Jewels suits his guitar hand.
“You don’t have to be Eddie Van Halen to play a few Chuck Berry chords,’’ Brebner said.
The afternoon and early evening show times have emerged as more than just a convenience for the older musicians and their fans; the atmosphere, they said, is just more suited to their tastes these days.
“A lot of my favorite watering holes have been taken over by under-30s . . . and by boneheads,’’ said Jesse Burkhardt, 55, a Cambridge resident who often hangs at the Plough during weekend afternoons.
Now middle aged, the early rock generation has mellowed, so it is understandable their music - and the music scene itself - does not have the midnight mania it used to have.
“A lot of people I know are older and they’re looking to relax to music,’’ said Bear, the Rustlers’ bassist. “They don’t want the angry, three-chord punk anymore.’’
Club circuit for middle age rockers:
Plough & Stars
Sally O’Briens Bar
Steve Morse is a former music critic for the Boston Globe who now teaches an online course in rock history for Berklee College of Music. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.