January 5, 2006

Watkins & the Rapiers not a secret, but close

Jeff Spevak
Staff music critic
Democrat & Chronicle

Watkins & the Rapiers is one of the finest bands in Rochester, but you don't have to take my word for it; they got the seal of approval from no less a songwriting whiz than Loudon Wainwright III, who OK'd the band to open his Jan. 12 show at Montage Live.

So, how come you've never heard of these guys?

They're not masters of self-promotion. In the band's "nine or 10 years," says guitarist and songwriter Scott Regan, who seems somewhat uncertain of the timeline, the band has released one official album, Play Along With Watkins & the Rapiers. And one unofficial album, Whatever Happened to Watkins & the Rapiers? "We make them as we need them," Regan says, to sell at shows.

Regan also released a solo CD, 2002's Homemade Maps, which kinda gives you an idea of where Regan's songwriting comes from. Or, the more appropriate tone, where it wanders in from: "Days Go By" opens with the lines "Mama get some water, dog looks mighty dry. Movin' kinda slow, got two bloodshot eyes."

And there's a whole mess of original Christmas songs circulating among friends and fans; the band has played a Christmas show every year for the past eight years. "I think it's some of our coolest stuff," Regan says. "My brother has written some great ones. They're not like other Christmas songs. You don't often hear a song about Santa taking hostages."

That's called "Santa's Got a Gun," if you want to call out a request next holiday season. Comparisons? How about the Colorblind James Experience, one of the finest and quirkiest bands to have ever come out of Rochester. Regan even used to play with Colorblind himself, the late Chuck Cuminale, in a jug band when the two lived in Oswego in the early '80s.

"Neither one of us could play guitar or sing," Regan says in a self-deprecating way. "Not much has changed."

It's American roots music. Even the disco-Christmas songs.

More likely than stumbling across the band, you may have stumbled across Regan on "Open Tunings," his weekday morning radio show on WRUR-FM (88.5). That began about 15 months ago. Regan, whose sole experience as a deejay was one two-hour slot on the old "Folk Lunch" show in the mid-'80s, heard what the little basement station on the University of Rochester campus had in mind, and said, "I could do a show like that."

"That's my record collection, basically. It didn't pay anything, but it was a big commitment. They taught me how to do the buttons, then said, 'You wanna go on the air?' That was it."

That's OK; he's a 53-year-old hockey-playing guy whose needs seem few, after spending years as a house dad, raising two now-grown kids.

Regan's radio playlist is as eccentric as his dog songs. He seems to like Bob Dylan. "I like to play songs that excite me, and emotionally touch me," he says. "There're so many good songs out there. There's a huge inventory that has never been touched by radio. I know just a fraction of it. I don't consider myself a musicologist. Just someone with a great curiosity."

Curiosity got stomped to death in corporate radio years ago. Did you know that last year, both Sony and the Warner Music Group paid substantial fines after an investigation by the office of the New York state attorney general revealed that they were giving money and gifts to radio programmers to play certain artists? That included the local pop stations, WKGS-FM (106.7) and WPXY-FM (97.9).

No such temptation comes Regan's way. No one's offering him high-definition TVs to play the new Mariah Carey album. He sees what he does as a return to the ideals of college radio, more than a decade ago, when they were simply playing the coolest music. When you listen to Regan's show, it's like being in his house, and he's saying "Listen to this. ..."

"Sometimes it's interesting to juxtapose things you are very familiar with and things you don't know," he says. "Frank Sinatra. I play some Sinatra. And Dean Martin and Peggy Lee. Rosemary Clooney. You put them out there next to, oh, let's see, I can't think of something, because I do it so intuitively. Maybe 8½ Souvenirs, and you make some connections between different styles of music you might not otherwise connect."

But doesn't playing a swing band like 8½ Souvenirs alongside the tortured characters of Lucinda Williams break a few rules of radio?

Long pause from Regan. ... "There are rules?"

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