Rustic Overtones perform during Riverfest alongside River City Slim and the Zydeco Hogs, Michael Cleary Band, 94th Army Band, Adam Ezra Group, and Brian Jarvis Band.
Free, 7:15 p.m., July 7. Mortensen Riverfront Plaza (Upper Stage), 300 Columbus Blvd., Hartford, riverfront.org
All of us have ambitions we'd like to accomplish but haven't yet due to any number of restrictions: timing; kids; the recession; general apathy exacerbated by timing, kids and the recession. In the case of Rustic Overtones guitarist/vocalist Dave Gutter, the key obstacle between him and one of his nagging goals was one of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in the music biz. That clash wasn't the only one the otherwise docile hard rock/funk/kinda ska band have had with authority — the Portland, Maine-bred Overtones have been part of not one but two major-label skirmishes (first with Arista Records and then Tommy Boy) — but it is tangentially related to a particularly memorable story of artist/label anxiety.
After cultivating their fan base in the early part of the 1990s, Overtones signed to Arista late in the decade. Soon after this, they engaged in an at least one act of open sedition. In 2000, the group were slotted for an Arista industry event focusing on R&B and hip-hop. Overtones were the only rock band performing there and Gutter was extremely dissatisfied with how his label planned on selling them to the public. “We were at the point where the label would be like, 'Well, maybe you should sound a little bit more like Dave Matthews. Dave Matthews is really hot right now.' We didn't want that at all,” he says. “We're finally going to have our voice heard [and] we want it to be the most original, unique voice ever. I don't want to be known as, 'You're the guy that is the copycat of this artist or that artist.' If we had this much power and money behind us, we wanted to really make a legitimate statement.”
Clive Davis — the aged and very accomplished music industry exec who has played a role in the careers of big names like Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith and the Grateful Dead — wrote Overtones' set list, which included, in Gutter's words, “all our softest, easiest hits.” Though they appreciated these songs, Gutter took this decision as a slight and wanted to show more of the band's angles, so he ripped up the document and made his own — one that showed their rock side — and they delivered an aggressive, self-empowered performance. “That night, we did get yelled at by Clive Davis,” Gutter says, “which, y'know, not many people can say that they were yelled at by Clive Davis.”
Overtones' front man and the Arista bigwig had another dispute. Gutter once told Davis that he wanted to do a concept record, and Davis adamantly opposed this. A decade-plus later, Gutter is finally making good on this goal with their latest and eighth album Let's Start a Cult. “'Let's start a cult' is kind of like 'Let's start a band.' It touches upon the things that are fly-by-night, and the things that are honest and that you really get out of music. Music can be this salvation or this dark cloud when you're putting yourself out there. You're selling yourself. You're like a salesman that is selling you and your thoughts and your beliefs,” he says. “It's a very happy record, but there's this underlying thing about how sadness is shunned by our society.” The story's protagonist wants to be a cult leader but worships his girlfriend more than he does himself, which is something he realizes he can't do if he actually hopes to be a leader.
Despite this talk, Let's Start a Cult is a record brimming with exhilaration and moments of brightness found even in more subdued moments. The band — who originally broke up in 2002 after their pair of capsized major-label deals and reunited in 2007 — still indulge in spells of jazz-but-not-jazz, punk-but-not-punk wanderlust. Realistically, Overtones would have been a hard-to-market niche on a major anyway, so it's for the better that their ambitions now have ample room to play. “For the new record, there's been a lot of references to '60s psychedelic music, which we were very influenced by. What happens with every record is, if you listen from the very beginning until now, every record is vastly different,” Gutter says. “Every time we put out a record, we probably lose a hundred fans because it's so different than the sound that they were expecting, and then we gain some, too, because it's not the band that they thought we were.”
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