DOWD & DREW, the newest residency at Friendly Tap, play every second Thursday. Combined, this duo has performed with more musicians than one can count, and there's a reason for that... they're charismatic and gifted! With music running through their blood since birth, Gerald Dowd and Rachel Drew bring profundity and flair to whatever genre they choose. Here's a brief dialogue to get a glimpse into what they're all about:
* How did you get started in music?
RACHEL DREW: Singing with my family. My parents were in the folk scene in Chicago as teenagers. I was born while they were still in college. Growing up, music was just all over the house, all around me. My mom would make up songs for everything we'd do. There was an elaborate pirate song for bath time, her own creation. Lots of "Y'aarrrs" and "Mateys" and threats to spit in my eye. Her songs were always funny. My parents were very young, and things didn't always go so smoothly, but there was joy inside of music. I learned that from them.
I've been singing for as long as I can remember, and I was singing harmony with my folks quite early - age 5 or 6. To this day, singing harmony feels like home. When I was a teen, I got involved in musicals at school, and even got to sing lead in Oberlin College's disco orchestra (our biggest gig was being the headliner for Oberlin's cross-dressing Drag Ball... MTV News showed up to film us, but the segment never aired as it was preempted by the breakup of Soundgarden). I had a world music radio show on WOBC at Oberlin, and got deeply into old R&B and jazz standards around that time. I used to say Ray Charles helped me through those years. And though I was always singing, and listening, and always making up melodies, it wasn't until my 30s that I began playing guitar or writing my own songs. And it was even more years until I started playing these songs in public.
So, for me, it was a slow start to go public, but I was always doing music, or part of it somehow. It's been supremely joyful to find other people to make music with over the past few years.
GERALD DOWD: My family has always been musically active: lots of singing, listening, with cello and piano hobbyists abounding. We were all forced to take piano and violin, both of which bored me to tears. So when the opportunity presented itself for me to finally pick the most annoying instrument possible, I asked for a drum when I was 10. And have now been annoying people for almost 40 years.
* Who were your influences?
GERALD DOWD: Too many influences to list individually, but I will now attempt to do just that: The Beatles (duh) are the first band I remember really making an impact on me. I used to have dreams with their music as the soundtrack. My brothers had what I thought was the coolest taste in music, so I scavenged their Billy Joel, Aerosmith and The Cars records often. But nothing had a bigger impact on me than my Steve Martin records -- still music to my ears! My dad (a real-life 'Mad Men' character in the '60s) loved jazz (from whence my Buddy Rich fetish sprung) and bluegrass/country (Tom T. Hall, Roger Miller and Charlie Rich were his, and then my, favorites) and my El Salvadorian mom loved classical and Latin American music. The five records to which I routinely played along in high school: The Who - "Who's Next" ; Circle Jerks - "Group Sex"; Peter Tosh - "Legalize It"; Led Zeppelin - "Coda" or "Houses Of The Holy"; Elvis Costello's "Punch The Clock"
College unearthed more gems (James Brown, Metallica, Fishbone, Public Enemy, avant-garde jazz and classical) and even more missteps (horrifying pictures of Dave Weckl's '80s haircut).
RACHEL DREW: Oh, this will be an incomplete list, but off the top of my head: Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, The Kinks, Otis Redding, Doc Watson, Hank Williams, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, and, of course, The Beatles.
* How do you describe your style?
RACHEL DREW: I've got a big voice, but I feel like singing is painting, and so I've got to be ready to use different brushes, which I do - so my voice is not always big. Singing is spreading truth, and sometimes the emotional truth needs to be a very fine line. My style is varied, but if left to my own devices, I go pretty bluesy. For the songs I write, they almost always begin with melody. It's rare for me to start with chords or riffing on the guitar. I'll get a clear melody in my head, and sometimes the ideas for instrumentation come at the same time, and sometimes lines come at the same - but I consider the melody to be the soul of any of my songs. I try not to alter whatever the spark melody is, or even change the key, and the ideal is to let the song grow around that.
GERALD DOWD: A broad, mature, reverential but original style encompassing many different flavors and textures, filled with subtle yet knowing nods to musicians and genres both current and bygone. Songs where the lyric and melody rule above all else, and which will make you smile, laugh, dance...and think.
CASUAL LISTENER: "An acquired taste."
* What's your favorite part of performing?
GERALD DOWD: Watching people dance and/or sing along, and otherwise enjoy the hell out of themselves without yelling requests at us while we're playing. Or in the case of the gig where I met my wife: watching someone mouth every single word of every single song from memory, while mournfully pulling on a cigarette and looking bored near to tears. What kinda mind-game IS that?!?
RACHEL DREW: There are so many things. I love music, but I also love being part of something bigger than myself, and something that surrounds and includes everyone in the room. Music is full of feeling, and sometimes you can actually feel, while performing, that the song is resonating for someone else listening for the first time, hitting them in a certain way. The song about my grandmother becomes the song about their grandmother, etc. I'm still surprised by moments in song. Just last week at Friendly Tap, in the middle of singing "I Never Would," I felt like I was actually inside of a record for a minute, like I'd become Dionne Warwick, or 1970s me. It was a strange, transcendental moment of sublime something. How did that happen? I don't know. So there's this continual opening up and connection in performance, and that's exciting, too.
* What's something surprising about you?
RACHEL DREW: Hmm. I'm not sure. I'm pretty open about everything. Maybe that's surprising. I almost never lie, not even when it's a good idea or convenient. I feel like my head is too full, and lying is too hard. I'd never be able to keep track of anything. But there was one time, years ago, that I was getting rung up to pay at the grocery store. It was basic small talk. I said I was tired, then muttered something like, "Kids..." At the time, I only had one kid (I now have two). The cashier asked how many kids I had, and I lied and said I had six. I was so shocked (at myself). Anyway, I went home and told my husband I'd lied about how many kids we had, so then we named the other five that didn't exist. They all got names like "Runaway" and "Cartwheel" and "Ju-Vee."
GERALD DOWD: I do actually sit quietly and not speak for long stretches of time. I also do a fairly believable Ted Knight impression.
* What brought you to the Friendly Music Community?
RACHEL DREW: I've played Friendly Tap several times with Peter Joly's trio (with Jon Williams and Josh Piet, and once with Andon Davis and Maggie Dahlberg). Peter has a Sunday residency, so playing with Peter is how I got to know the space. I sang with him at the Friendly Folk Festival last year, and that's when I met Sally Hanson. She was so welcoming. When Gerald and I were looking for a place to do a duo show a few months back, I naturally thought of Friendly Tap, and Sally received us with open arms. Rob Pierce has been amazingly welcoming since we began, and we're so happy to be on Molly Hanrahan's night. Friendly Tap is a very special place. It's very unusual to find a place and community so welcoming to and supportive of its musicians.
2. I had hung out as a civilian many times at the Friendly, and of course loved it because deep down I'm really just a 75-year-old boozehound. I'd always WANTED to play there, but my independent booking game is so weak, son! Anyway, Friendly was at the top of our list when Rachel and I were thinking of places to set up this residency, and we're thrilled it's actually happening.
* What can the audience expect from your new residency?
GERALD DOWD: Country-soul-rock-jazz-influenced originals and covers played with a hotshit (or 'world-class', if 'hotshit' is inappropriate) (or leave this whole paragraph as is, if that's funniest) band that we're positive you'll really enjoy, or your money back.
RACHEL DREW: So far we're lucky enough to have gotten some of the best musicians in Chicago, and maybe the world, to play with us once a month: Larry Brown, Dave Nelson, Josh Piet, Scott Stevenson. We're doing mostly originals, but also some covers. I think you can expect a deepening and opening up of all the songs we've been doing, and you can also expect us to be trying on some variety. It'll be exciting and different each time, and a lot of fun.
Here's the music that turned me into a fan: