Waging Ragged Glory
Waging Ragged Glory
A Q&A with Joe Mass
By Geoff Gehman
Broken Arrow is turning a venue in Bethlehem into Neil Youngland. The four Pennsylvanians fill the sold-out room with faithful, liberal versions of songs swampy (“Alabama”) and stampeding (“Cinnamon Girl”), psychedelic (“Cowgirl in the Sand”) and sweet (“Harvest Moon”). At times I feel the kind of groovy rush I felt in my adolescent bedroom, listening late at night to long-haired teens wailing away on “Down by the River” in a next-fence shed.
Performing Young’s parts is Joe Mass, a veteran chameleon who has recorded with funk guru Bootsy Collins and music directed for guitarist/keyboardist Michael Sembello, co-writer of the hit “Maniac” for the hit movie “Flashdance.” Mass resembles a young Young with his flannel shirt, long black hair, lean build and piercing eyes. His fluttery, flinty singing approximates Young’s too. He gets the heart-breaking quake in “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” the screaming sneer in “Rockin’ in the Free World.” As a guitarist he follows Young’s map without copycatting. He blends his own rhythms and spaces, tones and attacks, adding a long, meaty solo in the middle of “Ohio” that takes the protest number into another state. Like Young, he’s confident enough to veer from highways to blue routes. Like Young, he likes to fly like a broken arrow.
On Feb. 23 Mass and his band mates will turn the Mauch Chunk Opera House into Neil Youngland. Below, in a conversation from his home in his native Philadelphia, Mass discusses the rewards of playing Young’s tunes, his Young learning curve and four very different first unforgettable favorites.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that laid you absolutely flat?
A: There are so many, it’s hard to choose. On one hand, “Sunny” by Pat Martino. On the other hand, “Eruption” by Van Halen. On the other hand, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers. On the other hand, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. They all hit me pretty hard. How’s that for an answer?
Q What was the first Neil Young song that stuck to your ears and soul?
A: Probably “Heart of Gold.” I heard it years and years after it came out. It’s the first Neil Young I hooked onto.
Q: During the Musikfest Café gig bassist Danny Gold told a brief story about the two of you deciding to play Young tunes in public in his guitar shop in Narberth. I’d like to hear the longer version.
A: Danny’s shop is not far from where I live. One day in 2015 I walked in there thinking he could help me learn “Old Man” as a wedding song for a father-daughter dance; it was the only Neil Young song I really knew at the time. Danny told me: “You know, you look like the young Neil. I know a couple of guys who would love to play Neil songs with us. We could do a Neil tribute band. Would you be interested in that?” I was, and that’s how the show got started.
Q: “Like a Hurricane” is progressively dramatic and atmospheric, which is why it’s usually played three quarters through a concert or as an encore. Yet in Bethlehem you played it second in the first set, after “Mr. Soul.” Why so soon?
A: “Mr. Soul” is in the key of E. Although “Like a Hurricane” is in A Minor, the first guitar note I play is in E. It’s a nice segue; it works.
Q: I never get tired of “Cinnamon Girl.” with its sledgehammer swing and smoking, toking lyrics. It’s visceral, primal and fairly easy to play, which is why it probably launched a thousand garage—or shed–bands. Why is it so damned fun?
A: It’s a driving song with a really good backbeat. It’s fun to play, fun to listen to, fun to groove to. Even that one-note solo thing on the guitar is fun. As you said, it’s primal. And that’s why Neil is called the Godfather of Grunge.
Q: Is there something, or some things, you understand and appreciate about Young’s music that you didn’t before you formed Broken Arrow?
A: The way he paints his lyrics. He’s very colorful with words and he leaves a lot to the interpreter, meaning the listener. While “A Man Needs a Maid” appears chauvinistic at first it is really, in my opinion, about a love that has really gone south and hurt Neil. I think the orchestration is brilliant, too.
Q: What won’t you do while playing Young tunes in public? I noticed during the Musikfest Cafe show that your body movements are neater than Neil’s, that during guitar solos you don’t thrash around spastically, melodramatically
A: I’ll stay true to his vocals and to all his chord changes, but I won’t play his solos note for note because that wouldn’t be in the pure spirit of Neil Young. Now this is just me thinking, but if Neil came to a tribute show I don’t think he’d want to hear something done exactly the way he did. I’m going to explain it like this, in Neil’s words, and this is a quote: “When we made ‘Harvest’ the record company came to me and said ‘We can’t wait to hear your next record.’ They expected me to do something exactly like ‘Harvest’ and I made another kind of record [the raw, drugged-out “Tonight’s the Night”] that nobody liked. It was deemed a failure by the critics but to me it was a success.”
So, even though I could copy his solos, I think he would appreciate it more if I put a little bit of myself into his music. Playing his music and playing yourself: that’s the real spirit of Neil Young.
Q: You stick to standards that Young minted with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and his country bands. Could you play off-the-track tracks like “Winterlong” and “Already One” and still keep your listeners tuned in?
A: If I would choose one deep cut I’d like to play, it would be “Broken Arrow” But you have to be careful when you’re a tribute band. You have to understand one big point: you’re not the original artist. You are giving the audience your take but staying true to the music and the spirit, so they get what they came for. We want to give people exactly what they came for, which is a show of Neil Young’s biggest songs, done in a manner they can appreciate. We’re not going to play “Down by the River” for 27 minutes, as Neil has done. We’ve played it for 12 minutes at times but usually it’s between seven and eight minutes: that’s enough. Neil can get away with 27 minutes of “Down by the River” because he’s Neil Young. We can’t.
Q: You and Neil are natural top tenors. Was there a learning curve to get his very distinctive floating, banking quality into your system?
A: Oh yeah. I have a great vocal coach, Anne Sciolla, who has given me ways I can sing this show full voice, without using any falsetto. I’ve learned a lot about how to mix a little bit of me into the Neil thing and how to elongate certain things, how to warm up, how to sing a whole show without losing my voice. Singing “Rockin’ in the Free World” is easy. The harder pieces are “After the Gold Rush” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” which I play on the piano. Everything we play is in the record[ing] key; we do not lower any keys.
Q: What line from a Young song is so important to you, it could be on a T-shirt or bumper sticker?
A: “When will I see you again?” It’s the last line in “A Man Needs a Maid.” It explains the whole song, and it’s so telling about the end of a relationship. .
Q: What question would you love to ask Neil?
A: Why won’t he play his 1958 Gibson Explorer? He played it in ’82 on the “Trans” tour and on a couple of other projects. What’s the deal? Is it too valuable? Only 36 of them were made. I have an old Explorer and a black Les Paul and a Korina Flying V, the type Neil ‘used in the early ’70s. All the guitars I bring out [to the stage] are pretty much Neil guitars.
Q: So, Joe, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I’d just like to play music as long as I possibly can and make everybody who comes to the shows happy. Happiness through music: that’s it.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List?
A: I like to keep it positive; there’s so much negativity in the world. .So I don’t have a comment.
Q: You play “Long May You Run,” Neil’s eulogy to his first car, a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse he nicknamed “Mort.” Do you share his fascination for antique gas guzzlers with big bodies and big curves?
A: I drive a new Mercedes E300. I like new cars.
Joe Mass: The Scoop
He is a featured soloist on allguitarnetwork.com, which was created by Joe Bonamassa and Norman Harris, owner of Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, Calif.
His former manager, Arthur Mann, co-founded the record label Rykodisc.
He befriended Allen Iverson, the Hall of Fame shooting guard, while playing in the house band of the Philadelphia 76ers. “Allen was an amazing basketball player and athlete—he was a great football player, too. He’s also an awesome person, the nicest person you’d ever want to meet. The people in his family are beautiful, too. I’m looking at a photo with him, me, my girlfriend at the time and my mother.”
He was a member of Sabroso, the Latn jazz group.
He played guitar on a record produced by Jon Bon Jovi in the Sanctuary, Bon Jovi’s studio in Red Bank, N.J. He also stayed in the Sanctuary’s guest house.
He played guitar on Bootsy Collins’ 2017 record “World Wide Funk” which guest stars Snoop Dog and Bela Fleck, and contributed a song to the 2008 Collins-produced album “Fallen Heroes Memorial,” which guest stars Charlie Daniels and George Duke. “I just love Bootsy. He’s a musical encyclopedia. He’s taught me a lot. He’s my big brother, man, in so many ways.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite Neil Young songs include “Expecting to Fly,” “On the Way Home,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “When You Dance, I Can Really Love,” “Southern Man,” “Out on the Weekend,” “Country Girl,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Winterlong,” “Long May You Run,” “Already One” and “Natural Beauty.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.