Makin’ Front Page News With Kris Rodgers & The Dirty Gems

I lived in southern Maine for about three years. A lot of it was basically what I had expected. The winters were cold and harsh, the lobster was cheap and plentiful, the people were friendly, and it was fairly rural and picturesque. I didn’t see any moose (despite eyebrow-and-pulse-rate-raising signs about them on the highways) but I did almost hit a buck one night on a side road in Biddeford that was the size of a Ford van.

What I didn’t expect to find was a small collection of guys between Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Portland, Maine who were making the kind of rip-snortin’ rock and roll music there just isn’t enough of anymore. They’d painstakingly carved out their own scene in northern New Hampshire/southern Maine playing in local bars and clubs (and backyards and street fairs). The crowds aren’t big, the money isn’t great, until very recently they weren’t get the attention they deserved, but (and stop me if you’ve heard this before) they keep doing it because they love it.

Kris Rodgers is one of these fine individuals. In fact, he’s the common denominator between them. Rodgers plays and records with Portsmouth’s The Connection, Portland’s Kurt Baker (recently decamped to Spain), The New Trocaderos, local cover bands (man’s gotta pay the rent!), as well as striking out on his own.

The person that Rodgers reminds me of the most is British piano legend Geraint Watkins. Watkins, like Rodgers, is a keyboard virtuoso who can play serious “adult” muso stuff but can put the pedal down and rock with anyone. He, like Rodgers, is also famous for appearing with a ton of different bands (Stray Cats, Dave Edmunds, Dr. Feelgood, it’s a long list) as well as doing his own unique music. They’re both also unassuming looking guys who, by some kind of magic, transform into possessed beings when behind a piano with a band.

There’s a lot to be said for that quality. Rodgers doesn’t look like a rock’n’roll musician who’s had his music raved about by Little Steven Van Zandt and played on stages across the Earth. He’s a bit like Superman, except he’s got a stage instead of a phone booth and he doesn’t change clothes. He just changes from the guy next to you at the bar complaining about the Celtics over a Yuengling into a shit-hot piano maestro slamming away at the keys and wailing into the microphone.

Talented? Talented is a nice word. Rodgers is like a bull in a china shop who appreciates the objects before he destroys them. He’s got talent but, as you’ll read a little later, he’s also got fire. The album he released last year, “Headlines” (on Collector’s Club Records), isn’t like anything you’re likely to hear unless you’ve got a DeLorean and have visited 1978 AM rock radio land recently. It sounds automatically familiar on the first listen. Imagine a world where Rod Stewart never went disco and the Faces still rocked, Blue Ash had a longer career, and Elton John’s career had stuck more to the “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” yellow brick road than the “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” Disney vibe. You can play “spot the influence” on every track, but that would be boring and you’d be missing the point (and the fun). Remember what the late great Lee Brilleaux used to say- yeah its rock and roll again but nobody asks the London Philharmonic if they’re still bashing out that old Beethoven guy for the umpteenth time do they?

Now that I’ve given you a sniff of what’s going on here, sink your teeth into this interview Rodgers nicely did with me.

 

01.) Before we get into the rest of the questions, tell everyone a little about yourself and what it is you do, please. 

Well let’s see here, I’ve been playing in bands since I was a teenager. I went to college for music in Boston and ended up eventually coming back to Portland, ME after I was finished. My first band, Highway Jackson, had some local success and we played some cool shows but we broke up in 2009 due to normal life stuff. Tyler Johnson, the lead guitar player from HJ, actually plays the solo on “Headlines”. He’s badass. All those guys are. After HJ I started playing with Kurt Baker and eventually the Connection. I play piano bars and also play in the Don Campbell band, as well as my cover band, Vinyl Tap. It sounds like a lot but it’s music, and it all kind of blends together after a while. It keeps me on my toes and helps me to consistently evolve as a musician and performer. I’ve been a full time musician since 2010


02.) “Headlines”- the title track- has got to be one of the best kiss-off songs I’ve ever heard, right up there with Graham Parker’s “Mercury Poisoning”. I know you won’t divulge the target, but can you tell me a little bit about the song’s origins?
Yeah absolutely! A musician I know is always bitching and moaning about how hard it is for him and his band and how they deserve more when in actuality they don’t work very hard and don’t deserve much at all. That was really the initial inspiration for the song, but the idea of headlines came from an Ian McLagan song called Headlines. Ian is one of my all-time favorites and I really loved the analogy of a headline. In todays world with status updates and tweets, and it really works well. 
 
03.) What was the difference between recording this album and your last full-length? 
I’ve done a ton of records at this point with different bands, but this is actually the first full length I’ve done with The Dirty Gems. It’s the first full band record I’ve recorded independently too. That was at times a huge disadvantage and at other times a huge advantage. I went to a studio up here in Maine to get the drum sounds with longtime Kurt Baker Band and Connection drummer Craig Sala, and did the rest at my home studio, Standish Rock City. 
 
04.) You wear a lot of hats and play with a few different outfits, how does being “out front” as it were impact the process (if it does at all)?
It doesn’t really impact much for me at this point. I’ve fronted cover bands as well as other original acts over the years and it was really more of just how to put it together on stage. I really hate sitting at a keyboard for a rock n roll show. It’s tough to move around and it’s tough to be a front man when you can’t move with your instrument. It took me a while to learn how to keep the keyboard down like I would be sitting at it, but stand up so it’s almost like playing a piano standing up. Other than that, nothing really is different. 
 
05.) You’ve had the “Coolest Song In The World” on Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which puts you in some pretty auspicious company. How did you originally find out about that and what was your reaction?
I got an email from the show’s producer asking to give him a call at the station. I was really surprised and obviously thrilled when I heard the news. They now have “Headlines”, “Keep on Knocking”, “No Complaints”, and “Waiting Fool” all in rotation, as well as our Christmas song “Can’t Spend Another Christmas(Without You)” during the month of December. I really can’t even begin to explain how Little Steven and the fine folks at The Underground Garage help independent bands. A lot of the bands they play, we’re in contact with each other, help each other out touring or setting shows up, and the common thread is that we all have the endorsement from one of rock n roll’s greatest ambassadors, Little Steven. People like myself, The Connection, Kurt Baker, we’re getting the same exposure as people like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and that’s huge. 
 
06.) As a pretty sharp piano player, who are some of your favorite keyboard maestros?
I have a bunch of different guys for different reasons, so including songwriters and players in no particular order Leon Russell (just kidding he’s first), Elton John, Ben Folds, Ian McLagan, Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, Nikki Hopkins, Bud Powell, Billy Preston, Steve Winwood, and I guess you can throw Billy Joel in there but I don’t gravitate towards his songwriting as much as other people. If you want to get nerdy, Chopin is a beast too. He can make the piano sing. 
 
07.) Where did the idea to cover Death’s “Keep On Knocking” come from? That seems a little bit outside your usual jurisdiction, but you manage to blend it very well with your sound. 
It’s definitely outside my usual jurisdiction! I heard that song a few years ago and loved it. Somehow it was brought to my attention again while recording the album and it was like a light switch went off. I knew we could do a cool version because it’s such a great song on it’s own without adding any pop shine to it. We have a couple more like that for the next album too!
 
08.) Maine isn’t exactly known as a hot spot of rock and roll- does that put a little bit of a chip on your shoulder or is it not something you really think about?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. Portland is a very idle town. I’ve definitely encountered people who won’t label me an artist because I play with so many people, and play pop rock n’ roll. Most of it is just people having a small town mentality and I think you probably see that in a lot of places. I’ve seen enough in my short career to know that just because one place doesn’t gravitate towards your art doesn’t mean other places won’t. The flip side is there are still a lot of really great musicians, artists, and supporters of music in general regardless of genre in Portland. I’m also a big time competitor and use anything to motivate myself. Anyone says something to me about me or my music that I can twist into a negative connotation and use it as an “I’ll show you” attitude, I do. Even some of my friends, family, my favorite people on the planet. My Mom, who is my biggest supporter, said to me years ago “well someday you have to think about getting a real job”, and I still use that to keep the fire burning. 
 
09.) 2014 was a good year for y
ou, can you tell me some of your favorite moments?

Yeah 2014 was nuts. The biggest moment was meeting Steven Van Zandt and getting on The Underground Garage, but there are so many other great moments. I was able to play some wild shows with The Connection, opening for Hall n’ Oates at the Cleveland Civic Center for the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, and also open for the Empty Hearts, featuring members of Blondie, The Chesterfield Kings, The Cars, and The Romantics, in Boston and NYC. To top that with putting out “Headlines” and the shows that we’ve played in the Northeast in support of it. I logged my longest gig ever in 2014, playing from 12pm-7:30pm on a hot June day in Portland, ME’s Old Port for Old Port Fest. I also got to play alongside Jonathan Edwards for my friend Don Campbell’s 50th Birthday and play John’s hit single “Shanty”. To say “lucky” is an understatement for sure. 


10.) Where did the name “Dirty Gems” come from?
Kurt Baker and I were hanging out drinking beers one day and we came up with it together. I can’t remember exactly how it happened but at the time we were thinking of 60’s band names. 
 
11.) What’s next for you in 2015?
I’m getting ready to take the Dirty Gems over to Spain in May, and we’re continually booking around the Northeast. Hopefully we’ll have a new record out by the end of the year, and I’ll be playing with The Connection, Kurt Baker, and The New Trocaderos, who all have new records on the way. 
Alright, I’d like to thank Kris for talking with me and you for reading this. Now go listen to the record, buy it if you like it, and remember to support local rock and roll wherever the hell it is you live.

Kris is playing next in Portland, ME on February 17th.
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Gratuitous picture of Kris and myself in the Bowery in November 2014.
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Jim Powers

I used to always write "sideburns and leather, rock and roll forever" in things like this but I'm 35 now and the sideburns are gone and the leather jacket doesn't really fit. However, I'm still like that in my mind.

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