Musical Journey -Winter 2014
by: John Stanton
photography by: Jim Powers
The moment things changed for Erik Wendelken came in Columbus, Ohio.
He had been playing the stand-up bass since he was a 12-year-old boy, in school orchestras, at summer music camps, studying with well-known teachers, and finally at The Juilliard School. Now it was time to make a living at it. He was auditioning for a number of mid-level orchestras, in places like Buffalo, N.Y., New Orleans, and now in Columbus.
“I was driving a cab and traveling around and doing auditions for orchestras,” he said. “I started realizing, first of all, what if I got a job in Columbus, Ohio? Did I want to live there just because I had a job there? That began to make less and less sense to me. You see the same people at every audition, and some of them were a lot older than me at that time. I decided I didn’t want to spend my life chasing down a job I just didn’t want.”
A couple of decades later, on a weekday evening in early August, Wendelken was heading from one show to another – from an early show at the cozy patio bar at the Starlight Theatre, to a second show at The Rose & Crown, just around the corner and across the street.
Wendelken no longer plays classical music, and he no longer strives to be the principal bass for some famous orchestra. He still plays the stand-up bass, but now his fellow musicians play acoustic guitars and harmonicas, maybe a saxophone, and sometimes a fiddle.
It may seem cliché to say any serious artist is on a journey, except that it is true. Young artists sometimes explode onto the scene, demanding our attention, but a lifetime of making music is about exploration and chance. It is about changing personal outlooks and expectations, about creating relationships. Finally, if you are lucky, it is about finding your place within a certain tradition, maybe even adding something of your own to that tradition.
“If I look at Earth Got the Blues, we’ve been playing together for eight years. You play with the same musicians for eight years, several times a week, not only do you get to know each other but you get to be pretty good as an ensemble,” Wendelken said. “That’s when it becomes fun, when you get to really know each other musically. That doesn’t happen in six months. I’ve been playing with Chuck Colley for 20 years or more. That’s when you can really make music.”
The name of Wendelken’s band that August evening was Timbukblues. The band plays roots music, includ-
ing original tunes, and features Colley on guitar, Tom Stoddart on harmonica and Wendelken on the standup bass.
It is a comment on the fluid nature of island music that at The Rose & Crown the band was called Earth Got the Blues and featured Wendelken, Stoddart, this time on the tenor saxophone, Nick Hayden on drums, and Andy Bullington on guitar. This time the music leaned more toward Chicago-style blues than it did roots music, more Dexter Gordon-style saxophone and less flat-picking acoustic guitar.
“For me this all becomes great when you’ve been playing with groups of individuals for a long time,” said Wendelken, taking a moment to sit over a beer at the Starlight and both look back at the summer from the vantage point of an October day, as well as consider the long view of his musical life.
“I’ve had the opportunity to play in great music halls around the world when I was touring with the Juilliard orchestra,” he said. “We played at Carnegie Hall at Lincoln Center many times. But now I see that’s not the point at all. On Nantucket I play with great musicians and where you get to do that doesn’t matter. Maybe
Nantucket just attracts great musicians, so what if it’s a small town? We’re making great music here.”
Wendelken attended the Manhattan School of Music for three years before he ran out of money. He then managed to get a full scholarship to Juilliard. Three years later he left school for the life of a classical musician. By then he had married his high-school sweetheart, Meghan, and they had the first of their three daughters, Maura.
Then came his Columbus epiphany. Afterward, he decided that the only real decision he needed to focus on was finding a good place to raise his children. His sister Lisa was running the Safe Harbor Guest House, so he packed up and moved to Nantucket, where he found work as a housepainter.
He also found a new music to play. Roots music is a genre that covers a wide musical area. It is as much Irish session music as it is Appalachian mountain music, but somehow has become an authentically American sound. It reaches from bluegrass to folk to the blues, and past that into new sounds. It had a revival in the Greenwich Village clubs of the 1960s – Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger giving way to Bob Dylan.
“I always loved roots music, blues music, but never played it,” Wendelken said. “When I got here I began to play it, because I met up with Steve Sheppard and Gary Mahalick, and Linda Worster. At the very beginning you could go to The Brotherhood and there were all those folks, and from then on it just blossomed. I started playing with Chuck Colley, Eel Grass, the Shepcats.”
Twenty years ago on this island you could hear upand-coming rock bands from Boston and New York at The Muse, and reggae bands all the way from Jamaica at The Chicken Box. But if you wanted to hear acoustic music there was only The Brotherhood. Now things have changed. On any given summer day, and well into the fall, you can hear music at more than a few island bars.
“I think when the venues are open to having live music it inspires people to get together and make more music and brings together more musicians,” Wendelken said. “It also brings people out to hear music. So, you gotta have the venues. In the last several years, Nantucket’s restaurants have just opened up to that idea.”
In his opinion the key to creating a music scene is enough consistency of venues that people know where to go to hear music.
“Cisco Brewers is a perfect example,” he said. “They started bringing in musicians 10 or 15 years ago and the music has become such an important part of the scene there. The music has become part of the fabric of the brewery. People expect to hear live music when they go out there. It’s another place for us to do our thing and express ourselves and make our music.”
Wendelken has recorded a number of CDs with several bands, including his work on the recently-released compilation “Island Vibes,” produced by Nick and Victor Ferrantella and featuring the work of a wide cross-section of Nantucket musicians.
“What a great project and a wonderful thing to bring island musicians together and create this collection of songs,” he said. “What Nick and Victor have done is really great for the music community. To have a studio, a resource, to show what you’ve been working on, is just great for island musicians.”
Wendelken has played with Irish folk legend Robbie O’Connell and Aoife Clancy, daughter of Bobby Clancy of the Clancy Brothers. He played on a track with O’Connell on the recently-released roots music compilation “Dear Jean,” which celebrates the life and music of Jean Ritchie. In her early 90s, Ritchie grew up in Appalachia and is considered by many to be the wellspring of roots music.
“Jean Ritchie is considered the mother of American folk music,” Wendelken said. “She was very active in the folk revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And I really think this compilation is going to get nominated for a Grammy. What an honor it was to play on it. It includes Pete Seeger’s last recording, as well as work by Tim O’Brien, one of my heroes and a great bluegrass player.”
Roots music, regardless of the number of gigs you play each week, is a difficult way to make a living.
“It just isn’t where the money is, and that’s OK,” Wendelken said. “There are a lot of blues players who are just scraping by, but who are happy doing their art. I think that’s the key. It really isn’t the money. If you can survive doing what you’re doing and keep doing your art, that’s where it’s at.”
Wendelken’s day job is as music-department chair at Nantucket High School, which brings him full circle to his high-school orchestra director, who was also his first mentor.
“To be able to wake up every day and walk in and teach music is just the best,” he said. “One of the things I love is that I’m able to bring to my students my own compositions. For me it’s like a musical laboratory, to come in with a piece I’ve been working on all summer and begin working with the students on it so they become a part of the process of writing the music.”
One of those compositions, which combines two spirituals, is called “Wade in the Water/Freedom Road.” It was recently published by Audible Intelligence Music, which also agreed to publish five more of Wendelken’s compositions.
“There is validation when somebody looks at something you’ve done and says we think this is valuable and somebody else can use it,” he said. “Nothing makes me more happy than to think there’s some director out in, maybe, Columbus, Ohio, using my composition to teach his students.” ///
John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker and freelance writer living on Nantucket.