Sensible Shoes and Friends

The area music scene thrives on collaboration.  A Thursday night supper club soloist frequently turns up as part of a six-piece Friday night band.  Sensible Shoes is a familiar version of the latter variety, an energetic combo with a knack for packing the dance floor.

Tim Utt and Barbara Blaisdell often perform as Sensible Soul, a somewhat softer, jazzier combo, with Tim playing guitar and Barbara on piano.  Drummer (and Sensible Shoes member) Steve Drebber sometimes joins them; Friday at Elixir, Pooh Sprague plays bass, guitar and provides vocals.

This spirit of community and musical interplay fuels the band’s latest CD, “Sensible Shoes and Friends,” a work in progress (with release planned for early next year) that includes some of Vermont’s finest talents working in a variety of musical styles.

Utt, Blaisdell and Drebber began by laying down the basic tracks and then, Barbara says, “we decided to let each song dictate the instrumentation and vocal style.”

The strategy paid off in ways they hadn’t imagined.  Jen Hartswick of Trey Anastasio’s touring band had been invited to play trumpet, which she does quite well on “All Dressed Up” and “My History.”   When someone heard her singing along to one of the tracks during playback, Hartswick suddenly had another task – lead vocals.

With Hartswick’s gutsy, soulful voice at the helm, “Message Machine” kicks things off, anchored by Tony Markellis on bass and Tim Utt’s (shades of Steve Cropper) chop n’ strum guitar.  Fellow Anastasio alum Dave Grippo supplies a smoky sax solo for this sexy, loping blues/rock number.

Utt and Blaisdell have placed songs in soundtracks (“Philadelphia,” “Manchurian Candidate”.  The joyous “82nd Street” belongs in a movie about a hardscrabble couple who never lose their can-do spirit, at the point in the film where dreams are coming true.  With a hearty chorus of “we had to walk in our sensible shoes,” it’s also a band theme song of sorts.

Blues vocalist Eric Bibb contributes to two tracks.  The sinister “Petty Crimes” is a multi-tracked gem, with Utt stitching a nimble electric lead into an acoustic structure.  Co-producer Chuck Eller supplies an ominous, pulsing Hammond B3 organ, and Bibb gives the love and betrayal ballad just the right balance of sorrow and rage.

Bibb could be singing to the same lover on his other track, “Bound to Be With You,” a breezy tune about abiding a n’er do well partner, because, well, there’s nothing else to do.  “You’re unfair, I don’t care,” sings Bibb – “I know I’m bound to be with you.”

“Moving Day” was born in a Rosanne Cash-led songwriting workshop Blaisdell attended. The band recruited singer Christine (Adler) Venisnik.  She shares Cash’s enunciating vocal style, with mixed results.

“Sensible Shoes and Friends” includes one instrumental – “Cut, Split Delivered” – that owes a debt to the Spencer Davis Band’s version of “I’m A Man,” but manages to find its own way when Utt and Eller begin trading guitar and organ solos like gunslingers.

Hopefully, Sensible Shoes plans on bringing “Cut, Split, Delivered” to their (big band, crowded bar) live shows. The record is a solid effort so far, with the addition of a few more tracks an exciting prospect.

Sensible Soul – Tim Utt (guitar), Barbara Blaisdell (keyboards) and Pooh Sprague (bass, guitar and vocals) play Friday, August 15 at Elixir in White River Junction.