Jamulus, pedal steel & Pockets writ larger

That’s our new hero, second from left, on lead guitar, circa 1979.

While the prevailing pandemic has wrought considerable havoc with pretty much every nook and cranny of the music scene, nationwide, Pocket Full of Mumbles has managed to emerge all the stronger — and 50 percent bigger.

Founding members Mike Conant and Hal Phillips are pleased to have welcomed Tim Howie on pedal steel and Telecaster. He joined the band in April, when all musicians could do was practice. PFOM debuted the new three-piece lineup and its ever-evolving sound at a private party in Poland early in July.

That gig felt several worlds away from the dark, secluded months of March and April, when Conant and Phillips could do nothing but practice remotely via the online application Jamulus, a quite marvelous technology that allows musicians from the around the world to convene and play together via a specific, remote, third-party server. Conant and Phillips actually stretched the technology one step further, using Jamulus to access each other’s Internet servers directly.

“For the host, the delay was negligible because the server is right there next to him,” Conant explained. “For the visitor, there was a latency of 40-60 milliseconds, which can feel like quite a lot. Try playing in a field with someone standing 25 feet away. But like anything else, you can account for that delay with practice. And if the connection is good, it starts to feel quite natural.

“One thing’s for certain: It was great practice for us — especially all our close-harmony singing. After doing that remotely, singing together in the same room is a great luxury. It also sounds great because to us, it feels almost effortless.”

Conant has continued to play via Jamulus with dozens of strangers spanning the globe. He and Howie were no strangers, however. For several years they have played together as contributors to the free-form, practice-averse jammers known especially to Grateful Dead mavens across southern Maine as the Kennebunk River Band.

“Acquiring the twang of pedal steel has always been part of the plan for Pocket Full of Mumbles,” Phillips says, “mainly on account of all the Son Volt and Jackson Browne tunes we do. And those tunes really sound great with Tim on board.

“What we hadn’t expected was just how great the pedal sounds — along with his occasionally ripping electric guitar — on the Simon & Garfunkel songs we play, and our originals. A classic folky tune like Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. is completely transformed. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Tim has totally changed the sound of PFOM, for the better.”

Howie is a multi-instrumentalist from way back, having played trumpet, drums and guitar with a succession of “rock ‘n roll bands” while still in his teens.

“I picked up the banjo when I was in Texas, playing with a country band,” says Howie, who, in addition to playing with Kennebunk River Band, did a recent stint playing with Maine’s own Rock Bottom Band. “But when I was relocated to northern Maine, in 1984, that’s when I picked up pedal steel guitar and played with different bands in Aroostook County. I’ve stuck with guitar and pedal ever since, when my family relocated to the central Missouri area, and after we returned here to southern Maine.”

What ever happened to that guy who robbed the liquor store?

We often tell audiences that a particular tune we perform (and recently recorded, see above), “Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.”, contains perhaps the most unlikely Paul Simon lyric ever written down. Give a listen and pay special attention to the third verse… The notion that effete, petit Paul Simon would ever knock over a liquor store, or commit a violent felony of any kind, is patently absurd. The same could be said of Art Garfunkel, who is taller but no less the sensitive, urbane sophisticate.

No one claims this or any S&G song is explicitly autobiographical, but this unlikely outlaw theme is one that Simon & Garfunkel must have fancied because they resurrect and amplify it on their very next album with the song, “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”.

In an earlier blog (from July 2018, see below), we remark on the fact that S&G’s debut album, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., was something of a dud. Indeed, Simon’s next batch of spare folk tunes didn’t thrill the executives at Columbia Records, and so he fucked off to England, with Kathy (she of the song), to concentrate on becoming the next Bob Dylan. It wasn’t until producer Tom Wilson rocked up the single, “Sounds of Silence” (in post production), that S&G would reform. Indeed, this new Byrds-inspired version would go straight to #1, which led Simon, Garfunkel and Wilson to affix more orchestration to many of the remaining songs on this second album, the now iconic Sounds of Silence.

One of those cuts, “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”, doesn’t merely harken back to the criminal storyline detailed in the previous album’s title cut; it reprises nearly the entire lyric and updates the story.

In the wistful original, our antihero narrator has committed a crime, broken the law… In the middle of the night, his girlfriend asleep at his side, he wonders aloud (amid rich harmonies) what fate the dawn will bring.

Artists will sometimes refer back to previous lyrics, dropping little references or inside jokes to the listener. But with “Somewhere” we find something quite different: Simon deploys the original “Wednesday Morning” lyric to create a brand new song. A newly inserted chorus spells out next steps: I’ve got to creep down the alleyway, fly down the highway

These urgent new lyrics and tone reveal that our unlikely felon has resolved to go on the lam — Before they come and get me I’ll be gone! Somewhere, where they can’t find me…

It’s not clear, but it seems his girlfriend may have woken up in time to hear all this. One can imagine her surprise: That this poetic, nebbish (a nice Jewish boy?) has A) robbed a liquor store; and B) now intends to elude the long arm of justice like some turtle-necked, scarf-wearing Clyde Barrow. It’s all a bit grandiose but it does lead us to wonder (and further consult the S&G songbook) as to whatever happened to that guy…

PFOM back at Guthries April 5, 8 p.m.

Pocket Full of Mumbles returns to the stage April 5, for an 8-10 p.m. set at everyone’s favorite oversized, burrito-serving, craft beer-pulling living room, the She Doesn’t Like Guthrie’s Restaurant & Café, in Lewiston.

The duo comprising Pocket Full of Mumbles (PFOM), Mike Conant and Hal Phillips, formed in 2017 as an acoustic homage to the harmonies and hyper-literate songwriting of Simon & Garfunkel. Twenty-eighteen saw PFOM expand the brief to include the similarly stellar talents of Jay Farrar, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Neil Young and, at the risk of paled comparisons, Conant and Phillips themselves. Expect a sampling of all this on April 5.

If the primary inspirations for PFOM were Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, its secondary influence has been the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, the fertile collaboration of Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Indeed, PFOM nearly named themselves The Belleville Boys, after these two native sons Belleville, Illinois, where, incidentally, Conant was also born (his father had been based at nearby Scott Air Force Base).

The long-term goal of PFOM is to present a complete evening of live music: a two-man acoustic set followed by a second featuring full-band treatment of like material — to further demonstrate the remarkable versatility and power of top-drawer songwriting. Re-animating the Uncle Tupelo sound is PFOM’s hope for Set II.

Farrar and Tweedy would dissolve Uncle Tupelo amid not insignificant rancor in 1994, almost immediately following this club show in St. Louis. It’s an amazing performance at the peak of their powers when apparently — according to an oral history recently published in Rolling Stone — the two band principals were not speaking to each other.

Farrar would soon form his own band, Son Volt, further advancing the alt-country genre; the landmark album Trace (1996) at first gave the impression that perhaps he was the true genius behind Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy quickly complicated that assessment with the album Being There (1996), the second effort from what would become the prolific, indie super-group Wilco.