BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
November 6, 2014
If you have attended a show in a Chicago music room over the last two decades, it’s very likely the man striking the drumkit all night was Gerald Dowd.
Dowd is an anomaly in Chicago music circles in that he is the city’s most recognized drummer who has played in a long roster of bands that span just as many genres: power-pop, country, jazz, big band swing, rock, Latin and more. That’s him keeping time with Grammy-nominated children’s music auteur Justin Roberts; Dowd again at Simon’s Tavern playing in Electric Dirt, a Levon Helm tribute band; he plays behind (and serves as comic foil to) Robbie Fulks; him again in the Model Citizens Big Band that plays at the Gallery Cabaret and Green Mill. Kelly Hogan, Frisbie, Edith Frost, Chris Mills, Jane Baxter Miller, Pinetop Seven, Nora O’Connor, even Mavis Staples and George Jones — they and many others have been served right by Dowd.
So it’s not a surprise that more than 50 musicians will be on hand Saturday at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn for “Day of the Dowd,” a 13-hour marathon featuring almost every band, ensemble and singer-songwriter that Dowd has played behind since moving to Chicago in 1991. The epic nature of the show has a dual purpose: He is releasing “Home Now,” a debut album that features him in a new role as lead songwriter and vocalist. All proceeds benefit the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
“At this point I feel I have a bunch of home bases. I’ve been playing for all these bands for years so it feels very natural to do all this kind of stuff,” he says. “Even though on paper it may look insane.”
What makes Dowd unique is that he is far more than a timekeeper. His playing is immensely musical, meaning he strikes notes, draws tones and creates musical phrases from the most minimalist setting. Classically trained, his playing is immensely percussive in that he orchestrates using the entire kit, even cymbal stands and, well, anything worth summoning sound from. His vocal harmonies, and frequent lead vocals, also brighten the songs at just the right moments.
Then there is his new music: “Home Now” is a full-length set of new songs that reflect years of craftsmanship, but also study. Dowd says he developed interest in pursuing his own music — including learning the guitar — after years of playing behind others, particularly Fulks. Learning their songs and playing them night after night served as “one long master class” in songwriting.
“I feel I’m sort of a spy in the back. Sometimes people think I’m a goofy guy and I’m not paying attention, but I am able to get all these details about the process by being around these guys,” he says. “A good song has always fascinated me, and I’ve been lucky to play good songs for the last two decades.”
“Home Now” is filled with good songs. Produced by Liam Davis of Frisbie and funded through a grant awarded to Dowd earlier this year from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), the album is strong with bashing power-pop (“I Do,” “China Shop”) and country pop (“Baby Like Wine,” “O River”) that sounds wholly in sync with — and far superior to — anything on contemporary country music radio. Melodies rule this album, and many moments are flush with acoustic instruments and multiple harmony work that reflects the warmer, earlier period of the Band.
Dowd, 47, grew up in Boston to parents who were both musically ambitious: His mother was a self-taught classical pianist and his father, an advertising executive, played guitar and cello. Dad’s sprawling record collection weighed heavily with bluegrass, country, and Irish music. Dowd floated between music schools in New York City and Boston but due to dwindling funds corresponding to spiking tuition costs, he started setting his sights elsewhere. While on tour in 1990 with a band composed of classmates, he arrived in Chicago to play Lounge Ax, the late punk club in Lincoln Park. Impressed with what he saw, he returned to set down roots the next year.
“What ultimately got me to come out here was Chicago was much more of a livable city, a little bit more inexpensive, and just had this massive music scene with all these clubs and all these bands,” he says.
Dowd enrolled in the DePaul University of School of Music to finish his degree, but when tuition costs ticked up once more, he dropped out to learn by doing the real thing. Soon enough he found work, primarily because there was so much to be had, and he pushed himself to play music he was not yet familiar with.
“My criteria was, and still is, if I like the people and I like their music, I’ll want to play with them,” he says. “Also, if I didn’t have a whole lot of experience playing their music, that would nudge me to do it because you get so many different feelings playing Latin, jazz, rock or country, and there was so much I could learn.”
Dowd met Fulks in 2000 at the recommendation of his departing drummer. The audition was also a paid gig: the annual American Music Festival at FitzGerald’s in July. He apparently passed muster because Dowd has worked with Fulks ever since, not just at the drums, but also as a vocalist and sometime comic character actor during the country songwriter’s annual year-in-review holiday show that lampoons recent news events, trends and absurd newsmakers. Think “The Daily Show” but much funnier. [This year’s show dates are Dec. 26-27.]
“I instantly felt a kinship with [Fulks] as far as what he was going for musically. I’d like to think I work hard, but nobody I know works harder than that guy in perfecting his craft and in keeping an ongoing education about it. That guy is a tireless student of music,” he says.
With Roberts, Dowd has traveled the world and attended the Grammys in Los Angeles in a band that plays serious power-pop and rock for legions of young fans and their parents. “It’s a rock band but lyrically geared toward children so when we get to rock out, it’s really satisfying,” he says. “I probably act very similarly onstage as I do around my kids. We like to rile kids up.”
Dowd, who lives on the far Northwest Side with his wife and two sons, averages between 150 and 200 gigs a year, both in Chicago and on the road. Those numbers will likely grow as he designs his own solo touring for the new album. [He opens for Rachel Loshak at the Hideout Dec. 2.] That is, if he gets through the 13 hours of continuous drumming on Saturday, a show that will require Keith Moon-sized stamina.
“All I keep thinking about is how, at the end of the set, I can look forward to playing with another great band,” he says. “I could be completely naïve in thinking this, but that may be all it’s going to take.”