Some things in life are just worth waiting for. One of those things is Russ Seeger’s Live in Peace, the debut solo CD from a living legend on the Long Island music scene. For a remarkable four-plus decades, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Seeger has performed at virtually every venue in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, playing acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle and more, singing his songs and uniquely interpreting the tunes of those who’ve influenced him along the way. He’s made music with such greats as Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, Paul Siebel, Peter Stampfel, Rick Danko, John Hartford and—the one he’s most proud of—the late, great Levon Helm, who anchored a band with Seeger called the Last Hombres, who released an album, Redemption, in 2003.
So why has there never, until now, been a Russ Seeger CD?
“I’ve been at this game a long time,” Seeger explains, “but between raising children and bringing home the bacon, working as a lineman for the county, climbing telephone poles and driving trucks, I never had the time to go into the studio and make a proper album. The whole time, I always kept writing songs though, and now that I’ve retired from my day job it was time to put this stuff into a new package.”
Live in Peace (Paradiddle Records) is a stunningly potent and intriguingly diverse collection of some of the best of Seeger’s hundreds of compositions. Recorded at Paradiddle Studios in Huntington N.Y., the album was co-produced by Seeger and Bill Herman and mixed by 2012 Grammy-winning producer Bob Stander. In addition to guitars and violin, Seeger plays keyboards and bass, and is joined by a host of well-known virtuoso players and vocalists from the local scene.
“All of the musicians are generous and highly creative people who simply knew what to do after one or two takes, which made my job much easier,” says Seeger. “Playing what essentially matters” is how he describes the contributions of his support team. There’s an economy and confidence that speak to the maturity of Seeger as a performer and recording artist. “I tried to settle in with this record. I like giving a ‘surreal’ lyrical touch to the words and I wasn’t out to gun-sling solos. Working with drummer Roger Murdock, who co-wrote three of the tunes, was an exercise in how not to push too hard or complicate too much.”
Seeger’s music is distilled from his journeys across the human landscape, covering a wide spectrum of subjects and styles as accomplished as anything being done today, and he manages it all with wicked wit and great compassion. “There is a grand story of love, betrayal, redemption and death that link all of the songs,” says Seeger. “I love the idea of that.”
Among the highlights of Live in Peace are the title track, “Requiem,” “Hang Me Out to Dry” and “California Blues,” songs that “really tell my whole story,” Seeger says. “‘Requiem,’” he adds, “was the first time I attempted overdubbing a string section and I’m pleased with how it came out. When I mention the ‘Bee’ in that song, I’m talking about Beethoven, pompous as that might be.”
Pompous is one word that you’ll never see used as a description of Seeger’s music. More probable are adjectives like rebellious, tough, prickly, charismatic, highly cool and so damn funny. But this is no stage persona—as anyone who knows him can attest, that’s just Russ. Born in Rockville Centre on Long island, Seeger grew up in the hamlet of Franklin Square, where he was picking out boogie-woogie rhythms on a broken Spanish six-string guitar by the age of seven. “My first influence was the archetypal cowboy with a horse, who at night played a guitar and sang by a campfire,” he says. “I also loved the idea of making coffee in a tin pan...and it was always in black and white.”
Seeger made his earliest appearances as a singer/guitarist at church affairs and house parties and by junior high he was already playing in local rock bands, writing his own songs and remaking in his own image the tunes of some of his heroes, which included such classic-rock icons as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Procol Harum, the Grateful Dead, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Iggy Pop and “the whole gamut of country bands.” And two more that must be noted: Ray Davies and Bob Dylan. Seeger has paid tribute to those two inspirational figures by contributing to the Paradiddle albums Dylan Uncovered and Kinks UnKovered, and he’s taken part in Dylan tribute concerts on the Island.
In the early ’70s, along with keyboardist Steve Sollog and guitarist Dana Gaynor, Seeger formed a band at first called the New MississippiSheiks and later the Sheiks that ultimately became one of the most in-demand—and most innovative—bands in the area. He continued to work both solo and with countless other musicians in the wake of the Sheiks’ split, including one popular outfit called the Sons of Sweden. But playing in the Last Hombres with Helm for a few years was of course a major highlight, and Seeger feels honored to have had the experience. “It was awe-inspiring, to say the least,” Seeger says, “getting to rehearse up in The Barn in Woodstock and meeting his beautiful wife, Sandy. It was really a dream come true.”
Throughout all of those years, however, Seeger—as so many artists must—financed his music habit with day jobs and family life. It wasn’t until recently, with his kids grown and retirement papers in hand, that he was able to make music a full-time pursuit. Traveling to San Francisco for the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival inspired him to go back into the studio and finish up the CD that ultimately became Live in Peace.
As for the title, Seeger waxes philosophical when he talks about it. “It’s giving a positive expression of solidarity to all of us humans who have suffered in this world,” he says, “some at the hands of armies and war and some on a more personal level. I think it’s a message that always needs to be spoken about.” The title song, he adds, “was written from the perspective of an Iraqi war veteran who returns home and finds life hard to deal with. The song ‘Red Rose’ comes from a similar place.”
The opportunity to record his first solo album after so many years of building a regional fan base and attracting the attention of fellow musicians is one that Russ Seeger savors. He turns to a quote from the Russian poet Boris Pasternak to put it into perspective: “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is easy to miss it.”
Live in Peace is that kind of great moment—one not to be missed.
Jeff Tamarkin is a veteran music journalist whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, Mojo, Relix,JazzTimes, Playbill, Billboard, Goldmine, CMJ, Sing Out!, the New York Daily News,All Music Guide, Newsday