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Concert Preview: Better Than Ezra

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview: Better Than Ezra
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Still enjoying the momentum from their most recent album, "All Together Now," and with new music due next year, Better Than Ezra comes to Columbus with The Wallflowers for an outdoor show at the Columbus Zoo

It would be really easy for me to start this article with some sort of journalistic capitalization on the title of Better Than Ezra’s 1995 breakthrough single, “Good.”

So I’m not going to. Rather, I’ll tell you that the Baton Rouge-born, New Orleans-raised alt-rock quartet is on the cusp of its thirtieth anniversary as a band, releasing eight studio albums and a memorable string of hit singles that include “In The Blood,” “Rosealia,” “King of New Orleans,” “At The Stars,” and “Juicy.”

Their most recent set, 2014’s All Together Now, is probably their most musically varied. Lead single “Crazy Lucky” is a whimsical little piece of electro-acoustic pop that’s singable all the way through. There’s a fun, experimental vibe on tracks like “Undeniable,” “Insane” and “Dollar Sign” (whose chorus gives a pretty enthusiastic nod to Redbone’s 1974 staple “Come And Get Your Love”). But there are also some rather reflective moments like “Before You” with its lovely rolling piano-and-string interplay, and the uplifting bounce of “The Great Unknown.”

Touring consistently for three decades, the band – which consists of lead vocalist/guitarist/pianist Kevin Griffin, bassist and background vocalist Tom Drummond, guitarist/keyboardist and background vocalist James Arthur Payne, Jr., and drummer Michael Jerome – is back on the road this summer for a round of dates with alt-rock cousins The Wallflowers.

“It’s been great, man,” founding member Drummond confirms during our phone interview this week. “We’ve been having a great time with [them]. It’s kind of a strange pairing, but at the same time there’s a mutual respect. Jakob is really cool — and what a great band he’s put together. It’s been fun.”

On Thursday night, the tour stops in Powell for an outdoor show at Columbus Zoo’s Water’s Edge Events Park.

Drummond points out that life on tour for the band now looks markedly different than it did when it was still trying to make a name for itself.

“We all have families now. There’s no question that it’s not as easy to go out when you’re 48 as when you’re 28, you know? When you’re 28, you’re basically — probably — not even a homeowner yet, right? (laughs) You’re just kind of living moment by moment. Now you have responsibilities, you have businesses, you have children, wives, whatever the case may be. So the responsibilities shift. It’s just harder to be away from home, for sure. When we’re gone for a month — that’s a long time. Where back in the day, it was like, ‘Hell yeah! Let’s do it!’ But I will say that we really enjoy doing what we do. We get along, which is part of the reason we’re still together. I mean, that’s a big portion of what’s up. And we like to travel. So if you don’t get along and you don’t like to travel, you’re not going to last very long as a band. That’s just the way it is no matter what your success is.”

Better Than Ezra was founded in 1988 when Griffin, Drummond, former bassist Joel Rundell, and former drummer Cary Bonnecaze met at Louisiana State University.

“All of us had been in successful high school bands, believe it or not, previous to Ezra,” Drummond explains. “So when we met at LSU, our original drummer and our current singer put an ad in the school paper…it was called The Daily Reveille. And I answered it. I knew right after our first rehearsal that there was something special and, much to the chagrin of my parents, it was something worth pursuing. I was actually on a full NASA scholarship at LSU.”

Drummond says the band embraced material from earlier alternative and jangle-pop as models for their sound.

“I’d say [it was] the Pixies, R.E.M., The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen. We were very much Anglophiles, I guess. They were all guitar-oriented bands with catchy melodies and tasty guitar parts — that sort of thing. And not too gimmicky — just real songwriters. Songwriting is very important to us, so that’s a key component. We’re not really gimmicky, we never have been. The most gimmicky thing about us is our name.”

After 30 years — which included the suicide death of original bassist Joel Rundell in 1990, difficult personnel changes, and being dropped by Elektra Records five years after signing their first major label deal – the band has certainly weathered a few storms. I pointed out how All Together Now feels like one of their most mature and diverse efforts.

“I agree, yeah,” Drummond affirms. “I think it’s just about growing up. I think it’s just that your influences are different…you listen to different things and you have a different appreciation of life, you know? You’ve gone through different things – when you’re 18, you have no idea what it’s like to have a family. I don’t know if I had an idea about what it would be like to have a serious girlfriend, probably. Things are different, and it’s just an evolution of life more than anything. We try to bring in the things we’re listening to, and we try to stay current if we can — as much as a band of 48-year-olds can. We try to stay relevant, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that over the years.”

Shreveport-born Drummond had music in his blood from a young age.

“When I was in eighth grade, my friends formed a band. They had all the positions filled except for the bass player. And so, just wanting to be a part of the cool clique, I just said ‘Okay! I’ll play bass!’ And I took lessons for about an hour, you know, and in that hour the teacher’s like ‘Look, if you want to make money for the rest of your life, be a great bass player, because it’s not necessarily something that’s going to be the limelight of the band, but if you’re good at it you’ll always have a job.’ I mean, I feel like I’m better than that, but in the beginning it made sense — so that’s what I did.”

While other BTE members have relocated to Nashville and Los Angeles, Drummond has remained in New Orleans with its rich, historic music scene.

“It’s always been a great melting pot of music. There aren’t a lot of rock bands there, per se, although The Revivalists here lately have sort of picked up where we left off a little bit. It’s cool to see another rock band come out of New Orleans ’cause, to be honest, it’s probably been 20 years or so. They’re cool dudes, too — they’re nice guys…good band. It’s nice to see them have some success. We wish them well, honestly, because in some ways we feel like we’ve been holding the torch for a long time. (laughs) But yeah not rock bands, really — some really great horn players come out of New Orleans, like Trombone Shorty and Big Sam’s Funky Nation…Kermit Ruffins. There are just so many horn players, and that’s what New Orleans is really known for.”

The band’s calendar is currently full of live dates that will take them through the end of October, but time is also being set aside to record the follow-up to All Together Now.

“I’d say we’re more in the beginning stages of it,” Drummond hints. “But we are working on some new stuff — really cool stuff, and I’m excited about it. I don’t know when it’ll be out…sometime next year. It’s fun to be this far into the process and to have this kind of longevity, no matter what you do — music or whatever. Longevity is exciting.”

Sustaining BTE’s legacy has involved re-thinking their commercial approach, considering how the profitability of recording and touring has dramatically changed since the band got its start it in the late 1980s.

“We only tour when it makes sense — we’re not just going out and playing shows. In fact this [tour] was a bit of a rarity, and the only reason it came up was…the pairing with The Wallflowers kind of came up randomly, and the promoters all said, like ‘Oh, this sounds like a great bill.’ So we said okay. It made sense logistically and money-wise and all that stuff. To be honest, for us it makes more sense for us when we have a new album or something like that to go out and push. And I don’t know if it’ll be an album next time. I kinda think it might be an EP or a single. I think the business has just changed — it’s just the way it is. The problem is, the way technology is now, by the time you’re finished making an album, you’re on to the next thing because it just takes that long. And you spend all this money…things are just quicker now.”

With a lot of good fortune in their rear-view mirror, the band has made sure to share some of their prosperity with their home base in New Orleans. The Better Than Ezra Foundation was founded in 2000, which began initially as a golf fundraiser aimed at generating funds for the Louisiana Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“We’ve had a foundation for quite a while. We kicked up after [Hurricane] Katrina, when we felt New Orleans really needed some help. Essentially now we run after-school programs in [the city] for underprivileged kids who would otherwise be on the street during the critical time of 3 to 5 p.m., which is when nothing good happens, you know? So we’re real excited about that, and we’re actually looking to expand to other cities. We feel like it’s something we can actually do that will make a change for the better as opposed to throwing money into the well of a charity and having no idea whether it does anybody any good. We actually administer it, so we know where it’s going. Our next event is October 12 in Baton Rouge — we have a golf tournament. We do three or four events a year.”

Better Than Ezra will be joined by The Wallflowers on Thursday, August 10 at 8 p.m. at the Columbus Zoo’s Water’s Edge Events Park, 4850 Powell Rd. in Powell. Doors open at 6 p.m. The concert is outdoors (rain-or-shine). General admission tickets are still available ($39 and up, plus fees and taxes) via the Columbus Zoo’s website. More information about the band and the BTE Foundation can be found on their official website.

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