The alternative rock/modern folk group 10,000 Maniacs recently celebrated a handful of anniversaries. Two years ago, the band’s breakout album, In My Tribe
, turned 30. Last year, singer Mary Ramsey celebrated 26 years with the group as its lead singer (she replaced Natalie Merchant back in the early '90s), and last year also marked the 35th anniversary of the release of their first full-length recording, Secrets of the I Ching
. That album caught the attention of the late BBC DJ John Peel, who gave the band its first significant airplay.
As if all those milestones weren’t reason enough to celebrate, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of Blind Man's Zoo
“It just means I have to find another outfit to wear to fit for the color of the anniversary,” says Ramsey via phone from her Buffalo home when asked about what's it like to regularly celebrate so many milestones. The band performs with Cats on Holiday at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 20, at the Music Box Supper Club
. “It’s fun. It’s always good for us to celebrate another year of doing things together because there’s been so many. It puts things in perspective to the audience. It’s all of us sharing with the people who are still there with us.”
The band, which also includes bassist Steven Gustafson, keyboardist Dennis Drew, guitarist Jeff Erickson, guitarist John Lombardo and drummer Jerome Augustyniak, first formed in 1981 in Jamestown, NY.
While Ramsey wasn’t a member when the group first formed, she had plenty of musical experience prior to joining the act. Ramsey, who grew up in Washington, D.C., began studying violin at a young age.
“The Suzuki Method was just getting introduced there, and when I saw my sister do that, I wanted to do that too,” she says. “I eventually learned classical music. I also listened to a lot of my parents’ music — the Weavers and Joan Baez and a lot folk stuff. From babysitting money, my sister got [the Beatles album] Revolver
and I got the double albums. And before that, I had a Mr. Rogers’ album. That must’ve influenced me in some way too.”
After she moved to Buffalo, she met Lombardo in 1989, and the two quickly hit it off.
“It’s easy to meet people in Buffalo,” she says. “We first met at a place called Nietzsche’s in Allentown. I was in this rebel string trio. We would play on the streets. We were on the bill with John [Lombardo’s] other band. It was the band he was in after he quit 10,000 Maniacs in the mid-’80s. It was a random meeting, and he was impressed by my playing, and we became friends, and I was impressed by him. We started to play music. I started to play some guitar one night. He said, ‘You can sing and play guitar; let’s get together.’”
As John & Mary, they put out two CDs through Rykodisc records, and they opened for 10,000 Maniacs in 1990.
“The 10,000 Maniacs had just put out The Hope Chest
, which was old recordings,” says Ramsey. “John [Lombardo] had written lots of the music on the tapes. I met the band and played strings and did background singing. Natalie [Merchant] was the lead singer, and we did a lot of touring with them. I even played on the Unplugged
album. After Natalie wanted to do the solo thing, the other members asked me and John to join the band.”
In 1997, with Lombardo and Ramsey in the fold, the group cut Love Among the Ruins
. With their use of mandolin and violin, songs such as “Even with My Eyes Closed” and “All That Never Happens” still sound like vintage 10,000 Maniacs even with Ramsey handling lead vocals.
“It was fun to make that record,” says Ramsey. “We worked with various people and were quite happy with the CD.”
The album yielded a hit with a poignant cover of the moody Roxy Music track. “More Than This.”
“I remember saying, ‘Can we try this?’” Ramsey recalls. “I remember really loving that Roxy Music album Avalon
The songwriting sessions for Love Among the Ruins
also yielded the songs for The Earth Pressed Flat
, an album of B-sides that followed Love Among the Ruins
Lombardo left the band while it cut 2013's Music from the Motion Picture
but returned to the group for 2015's Twice Told Tales
, an album of traditional folk tunes.
“The band had a history of recording and singing those [folk] songs,” says Ramsey. “The instrumentation of our band works well with those songs. I had found my name in two old tunes, ‘Lady Mary Ramsey’ and ‘Lady Mary Ramsay.’ We thought of them as bookends. You start with one, which is a jig, and the last one is a dance.”
For the upcoming Music Box show, Ramsey says fans can expect “a bit of everything” from the veteran group.
“We may even put in a few holiday tunes,” she says. “I think that will be good. We played that [the Music Box] in December before. It’s a great venue, and I love Lake Erie, and I love being near it. [Buffalo and Cleveland] are cousin cities. We can feel the same things climate-ly. We know each other's bane and our victories. We feel the warm sun on our face and the cool air too when we get frostbit. [We both know] that wind off the mighty Lake Erie.”
10,000 Maniacs Featuring Mary Ramsey, Cats on Holiday Duo, 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20, Music Box Supper Club, 1138 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $45-$55, musicboxcle.com
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