Jan. 28, 2009 12:00

Tony Low shows persistence

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MELODY AND TIMING

Tony Low (left), a veteran of the New York and Los Angeles rock scenes, recruited pediatrician Mike Glock to play drums and social worker Peter Tyler to play bass in his new band. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Tony Low Band plays a memorial benefit concert for Corbin Gil with Benj-O-Matic, Stratocruiser and TBA at Riders In the Country, at 5701 Randleman Road in Greensboro, on Feb. 22. Call 336.674.5111 for more information about the concert. Visit www.myspace.com/tonylowmusic.

Tony Low considers this the third leg of his career. Part I: bass player, contributing songwriter and backup vocalist with the semi-legendary New York City powerpop band the Cheepskates, after which he picked up the pieces with a band called Static 13 in Los Angeles once the Cheepskates disbanded. Part II: solo acoustic singer-songwriter. Part III: frontman, guitar player and songwriter for his own band. He’s sitting for an interview at the bar in the narrow and intimate Elliott’s Revue in Winston-Salem before the band’s third gig ever, when he glances around to find drummer Mike Glock grinning with his back to the wall and butt planted on a stool. The two men graduated together from UNC- Chapel Hill in 1979, with Low plunging into the music biz and Glock pursuing a career as a pediatrician. Now 30 years later, here they are. Their roles are clear: Low is the purposeful leader and perfectionist, Glock the happy accomplice, looking to relieve the stress accumulated through the high-stakes grind of professional medicine. Glock is a confessed Rush fan; Low makes no secret of his disdain for the Canadian prog-rockers.

“We could be out golfing every weekend, but instead we’re playing rock and roll,” Low says. “How sick is that?” Low found bass player Peter Tyler more recently, but in similarly unconventional circumstances. Low teaches music at Peeler Elementary, a Greensboro magnet school with an emphasis on the performing arts. Tyler’s son took a class with Low, and one day last summer the teacher asked the parent, “Do you want to play bass with me?” Like Glock, Tyler plays music as a diversion from a generally fulfilling but stressful career. Tyler manages mental health counselors who work with gang members in Winston-Salem. Playing music feels good — a therapeutic dance of the fingers on the fret board and immersion in the groove. On the ride home, he confesses that he’s not exactly particular about musical style, and doesn’t know much about Low beyond the parameters of the music they play together.

Low’s story is a proud and accomplished one that features some of the usual stones in the pathway — a struggle for recognition and some personal stumbles.

Some highlights and adventures define the contours of the journey. A native New Yorker, Low came to UNC- Chapel Hill, his father’s alma mater, on a music scholarship to play trombone. He happened to see the H-Bombs, the seminal and brief-lived punk band formed by Peter Holsapple and Mitch Easter, at a club on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill during that period.

After college, Low returned to New York and formed the Cheepskates in 1982. The band enjoyed modest success in the midto-late 1980s, first with an American indie label, Midnight Records, and then with a German indie, Music Maniac Records. The Cheepskates’ 1988 album, It Rings Above, is ranked 49 in a list of the top 100 powerpop albums in John M. Borack’s definitive Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide.

The band soldiered through Europe. Low recalls with fondness how the Cheepskates put chains on the tires of its van to keep from sliding off a snow-packed Alpine roads, and went through a communist security checkpoint to play in Berlin before the wall was torn down at the end of the Cold War. Low put out two solo records during his time in southern California: Dandelion in the Year of the Rooster in 2000, and Sleight of Hand in 2002. He recorded his third solo album at Earthtones Recording Studio in Greensboro under the able production hand of Benjy Johnson. He currently resides in Kernersville, but hopes to soon relocate to the more cosmopolitan Greensboro.

Low is vague about the reasons for the move from southern California to the North Carolina Piedmont. “Not the Lucky Ones” from Time Across the Page, about great bands Low knew in Los Angeles that struggled in vain for exposure alludes to some of the frustrations of trying to break out commercially. And Low says of his decision to leave California: “I went through a lot of stuff with my first marriage.”

Low’s lyricism contains some of the sardonic edge of Ray Davies’ songwriting, and songs like “Rev” from Sleight of Hand leap out of the gate with the sparkle and propulsion of the Who in the band’s more poppy moments. The songs feature bracing chord changes and restrained guitar solos with bright tonality and the slightest hint of LA country-rock twang.

Elliott’s Revue is hopping tonight with patrons embracing, lighting cigarettes for each other, and tipping up beers. While they appear to be enjoying themselves, Low can’t help but notice at the end of the set that the audience’s reception has been somewhat indifferent. The band’s second gig at the Cave in Chapel Hill around Christmastime was only a partial success too, suffering from low turnout coincident with the holiday season.

The band’s debut at Somewhere Else Tavern in Greensboro stands out as a minor triumph. It reminded Low of the legendary New York City punk club CBGB, where the Cheepskates played.

“The Somewhere Else made CBGB seem like the Taj Mahal,” Low says. “It was really grimy and smoky. It was almost like a drug experience. There were all these 17-yearolds. At first I thought they wouldn’t be able to relate to it, but a couple of them came up and watched. I felt like I was teaching them something: This is what a real song sounds like; it has a melody and a hook.”

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