NEIL CLEARY with the Silver hearts, the DIPLOMATS and JIM ROLL at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Saturday (August 10), 8 pm. $8. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
Burlington, Vermont, is not well known as a cultural mecca. It has given us Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream, mellow-tasting Green Mountain coffee and -- oh, yeah -- a jam band called Phish.Well, you can add Neil Cleary to that list. The self-described Swiss Army musician is a multi-instrumentalist who's lent his considerable talents to a slew of indie bands, including drumming stints in trippy Elephant 6ers the Essex Green and Athens, Georgia, pop combo the Sunshine Fix.
Now he's giving one-man recording a shot with his first real solo album, Numbers Add Up, an acoustic disc that aims to capture the alt-country sound he mastered over the course of a yearlong residency at East Village bar 9C.
Although he's confident in his own unique sound, it's impossible to completely wash off the smell of Phish.
"Phish in Burlington is kinda like the CIA," he says on the phone from his parents' pad. "You're either working for them or you don't think you are but you are and just don't know it. For instance, my mom's a minister and officiated at the wedding of one of the dudes from Phish but didn't find out till after the fact."
Phish aside, Cleary claims the music scene in Burlington can be pretty cool. It ebbs and flows. While things might not be gelling right now, he hypothesizes that the hipsters get hoppin' in 10-year cycles.
He also admits that his hands-on approach to his own material was inspired by the grassroots community.
"I developed very specific opinions about what worked and what didn't. We were coddled within the scene and didn't have to go out there and make things happen for ourselves.
"It was really Essex Green who showed me that things could happen. They moved from Burlington to New York and hooked up with a label. And since I was drumming with them, I got to witness it all step by step. I was there when nobody knew who they were; I was there when the guy from the label saw them for the first time; I was there when shit really came together."
Cleary's overseen the production on the new disc (with help from Blood Oranges and Jay Farrar collaborator Mark Spencer) and keeps a close eye on the business. He's set up his own Doozy label to get the album out with help from a few indie distributors.
The only drawback to Cleary's solo approach is that fans will have a helluva time tracking down his Numbers Add Up disc. Try any of the indie record shops in the T.O. area and the cooler-than-thou salesfolk will stare at you with blank expressions.
"I specialize in rare and hard-to-find music," he laughs. "I have a profile within about two blocks in the East Village, but that's it."
Cleary's last pseudo-solo effort, the well-received Made To Feel disc, released in 1997 under the alias Stupid Club, was a patchwork musical anthology of the preceding five years of his life. Recorded in random studios under varying conditions, with a ragtag bunch of collaborators, the all-over-the-map disc made listeners feel a bit schizophrenic.
By comparison, Numbers Add Up is stylistically and thematically cohesive, a warm twang-rock portrait of that late-20s transitional period.
Cleary realizes that he's just missed jumping on the alt-country bandwagon, but he's not too worried about following trends.
"I feel like I'm always a bit out of touch. I was living in St. Louis back in 1991 when I was playing with this blues band and I had a place on Delmar Road right around the corner from where Uncle Tupelo was located, but I never hung out with those guys.
"Still, there's a lot of exciting stuff going on, at least on an indie singer-songwriter level -- just underground." firstname.lastname@example.org