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James Campion

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The Uncommon Bonds of Common Rotation

Posted: 12/03/11 04:38 PM ET

Discovering the Truth in Lying With a Rare Folk Trio

I am riding shotgun in a rented van crawling up Fourth Avenue with Common Rotation, a road weary L.A. folk trio who has taken a one-day respite from supporting the Indigo Girls' American tour to back their favorite songwriter on a stopover in New York. The songwriter, Dan Bern, is not only one of the genre's most prolific composers and thus the band's hero and mentor, but also its neighbor -- along with Bern's fellow movie soundtrack songster, Mike Viola (Walk Hard and Get Him To The Greek), who lives a few doors down. For the moment, Bern is sprawled in the back amongst the instruments and duffel bags playing scrabble on his smart phone; a touring ritual that I discover later over Indian food has been going on for months between himself and members of CR no matter where they are or the hour of the day or night.

A mere five minutes have passed since our hurried salutations in front of Joe's Pub near Astor Place, where the band would be playing a set before joining Bern on stage later in the evening. Normally, this would not be enough time to engage in a furious deconstruction of the Woody Allen film canon; the sudden cross-dialogue of which evokes a zeal usually found in the company of old acquaintances.

"Crimes and Misdemeanors is the best Woody Allen movie," pronounces the stout 34-year-old driver, Jordan Katz, Common Rotation's all-purpose multi-tasker. Katz's proficiency on trumpet and banjo, something he claims he picked up when the band wouldn't let him play bass anymore, is only outdone by his more than credible maneuvering through rush hour traffic. His bemused smile and nifty tie and vest ensemble belies an almost wicked sense that his vehement choice of Woody film is not altogether serious.

A voice from behind intones, "Adam loves Celebrity!" The Adam in question is 33-year-old Adam Busch, a slight, enigmatic soul with a penchant to appear almost cranky enough to be lovable. Later, while riding in an elevator, I proffer that if I were in a band it would be Common Rotation, he leans dramatically toward me and whispers, "Run away... fast!"

Of course Celebrity, a film lampooning the Hollywood bullshit machine made by a New York wise guy, would fit Busch's idiom as part-time actor. When informed that he looked so familiar that I was forced to remember him from an episode of the cult TV show, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where he played a nerd villain, (he's also played, among others, roles in Grey's Anatomy and House) Busch sardonically replies, "Yeah, well, everyone has met someone who looks like me."

As we quite literally run through everything Woody from Hannah and Her Sisters to Match Point, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Love & Death (Bern's favorite) and of course Annie Hall, a nearly apologetic voice chimes in with, "C'mon, Manhattan." And with that, the 33 year-old soft-spoken, bespectacled, Eric Kufs enters the fray.

Kufs, guitarist and part-time handler of dobro (lap-slide) duties, and Busch, whose musical expertise ranges impressively from sax, harmonica and glockenspiel, begin engaging in a rapid-fire Woody Allen joke-off. I am, for the purpose of full disclosure, partly responsible for this mess, so I gladly join in.

This lively back and forth goes on for 20 or so blocks and a couple of avenues as Common Rotation heads up to the offices of a rock magazine to play live with Bern for a pod cast. One gets the feeling that this kind of stuff (chatting up relative strangers before donning instruments, clearing throats and whipping off a few ditties) happens routinely for CR; moving from one subject to another with the kind of ease in which they traverse the country, one town and one rented van at a time.

It is how it is done the old-fashioned way; plugging a new record, as is God Keeps an Open Gallery, the band's fourth and latest full-length offering.

Open Gallery unfurls much like my short time with the band, familiar and lively; as if you've discovered something new that sounds as comfortable as your most well worn albums. There are teary ballads and gospel sirens, upbeat sing-a-longs and tender instrumentals, and across them all an enviable string of memorable melodies swept along on beds of wonderful three-part harmonies. Every note, Katz tells me, was rehearsed and recorded in the band's living room.

"For some of the tunes, I was set up in my bedroom with the banjo, while Adam would be across the house laying down harmonica in his, and Eric was in the living room playing guitar. We'd just sort of roll out of bed, put on headphones, and start playing."

The romantic notion of sharing suburban Los Angeles digs -- Katz describes it as a sprawling California house, circa 1906, once owned by Gloria Swanson -- brewing up the morning café, yawning out the cobwebs and getting down to making music together is not lost on Busch.

"Every one of our songs is basically a search for truth," he says proudly. "I feel like you're supposed to experience real things for people. I take it as a responsibility to share the experience with the audience. I would hope our live shows are always expressions of those little private moments that are sometimes forced to play out in public. There is nothing more fascinating than a couple breaking up at the next table or a man going through a crisis in an elevator; you're invested in the wellness of that individual. Isn't that where love starts, really?"

This search for truth is manifested in two of Open Gallery's first three songs, the aptly named, "It's a Wonderful Lie" and "A Reasonable Lie," both written by Kufs and Busch respectfully, and stark reminders that the search could be something of a chore. This not-so coincidental reminder is on the heels of the band's previous full-length studio recording and de facto title of its web site; "Common Rotation is a Lie."

So what's all this infatuation with the truth?

"All storytelling is a lie," Kufs weighs in. "It's always from one perspective. Even the most even-handed documentary is going to be in some sense coming from its own perspective. So to get to the whole truth is in itself a wonderful lie. Adam's song deals with what we have to tell ourselves or our friends and lovers that gets us through; a reasonable lie."

"We all bring ideas in," Busch adds. "Eric will come in with something and we'll play around with it, and then Jordan might add a part, or I'll have a lyric or musical idea. It's a group effort, but Eric is the driving force behind Common Rotation."

Kufs returns volley by making sure I understand that the trio's relationship, as friends and fellow musicians, is an advantage to his compositions. "I know which of my songs will be for the band," he states emphatically. "Because I know what everyone can bring to them and I don't have to say much. After all this time, they know what I'm trying to achieve, what emotion, what theme."

Open Gallery is by each member's measure, the most complete vision of Common Rotation, yet the album is replete with guest appearances from the aforementioned Indigo Girls, which Kufs makes sure to mention are "the most supportive and giving artists and friends." Contributions also include They Might Be Giants' Marty Bellar and Daniel Weinkauf, neighbors, Dan Bern and Mike Viola, among others.

This atmosphere of the creative give-and-take provides the tracks of Open Gallery a sense of proper contemplation; craftsmen at work, selecting the right mood for a song, the requisite accompaniment, the singular phrasing.

"It was the economic realities of touring that brought us to this self-contained sound," Busch admits. "We didn't want to create something that the three of us couldn't perform on stage. We forced ourselves to enhance what Eric was doing on guitar, whether it's me and Jordon on trumpet and saxophone or adding the glockenspiel as an undercurrent. That's why for the first time I think this record is a proper representation of what and who were are. I used to have to explain our records, but I just hand it to someone now and say, 'This is us.'"

This type of "closing ranks" to produce an insular, singular sound that translates "the truth" of the band can only come from a comfort level provided by a solid background, relationships forged in youth and developed somewhere between the thick and the thin; the story of Common Rotation.

The band originated first in friendship and then an uncommon bond in musical talent. Hailing from the same neighborhood in East Meadow, Long Island, crossing paths at Little League in middle school to sharing an admiration for Elvis Costello, especially Kufs and Busch, led to a songwriting kinship, a developed sound, and the obligatory local gigs.

Soon, Busch's acting career led the band to relocate to California, which brought about an expansion of the act in the famed Living Room tours of its early days when CR literally played at people's homes, captured in Peter Stass' documentary, How To Lose, which chronicles the trio's protest of Clear Channel's monopoly on the musical touring market. A more old-fashioned route of record promotion is hard to duplicate, unless one mentions the ingenious concept of Union Maid, wherein the band set up a web site to post new songs for fans to download for free. This gave birth to an Internet fund-drive to help the band complete the recording of "Open Gallery."

This may be why a reluctant swoon into maturity, a strange seduction with materialism and the constant specter of mortality creeps into what Common Rotation believes is its best work; close childhood friends, playing, struggling, growing together as a movable feast for 20 years.

Finally arriving at the magazine on 29th street, the band uncoils like a machine, instruments out, tuning up, the voices warmed and ready. Bern counts off and it is as sudden as the Woody Allen debate in the van or the ease with which the scrabble bounces off cyberspace; four voices meshing beneath Bern's staccato lead. "I just nod at these guys and they go," Bern recounts when I marvel at the relative comfort in which CR melds into his back-up unit.

Much later, on stage at Joe's Pub, the picture is complete; the rushing around, grabbing meals-on-the-run, the seat-of-the-pants scrabble fades beneath the polished sheen of the music. They put it all on display, the "private moments" in song and dialogue; witty, wistful and harkening to the days of dust bowl troubadours or vaudeville shtick; all of it as real as any lie.

For Common Rotation, this is the place where it breathes, a true band, a gathering of talents presenting its wares; old-fashioned, uncommon, familiar.