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For their first album in 20 years, Lyres revisit the Rat

Lyres frontman Jeff Conolly, the band's one constant over four decades.
Lyres frontman Jeff Conolly, the band's one constant over four decades.

There have been dozens of Boston musicians who have called themselves Lyres. When the band released its third album back in 1988, the cover art featured a meticulously annotated “family tree” by the rock ‘n’ roll historian Pete Frame. By that point, there had already been 13 versions of the band.

That was more than three decades ago. On Saturday, frontman Jeff Conolly — the one indispensable Lyre — brings his latest group of co-conspirators to the Middle East, where they’ll play a record release party to celebrate the band’s first album in more than 20 years, a live set recorded in 1980 at the Rat in Kenmore Square.

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Even in its heyday, Conolly’s band wasn’t made for its times. Formed in 1979, Lyres unearthed the 1960s underground — the relentless, maxed-out garage bands that came on like kamikazes — and filtered that sound through the streetwise punk era. Conolly was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s real wild men, a magnetic, soulful singer with one hand on the keys of his vintage Vox Continental organ and the other banging his thigh black-and-blue with a tambourine.

His band has been less active in recent years. It’s a wonder that they’re still ticking.

“We just completed 40 years of continuous Lyres,” says Conolly. Fans — and he’s made them around the globe — have been calling for new material for years.

“I get bugged a lot,” he says. “There are people in the current group that are bugging me.”

The musicians who played the Rat show featured on the new album made up a classic Lyres lineup: the “Help You Ann” Lyres, as Conolly calls them, in reference to the band’s best-known song. There were two of Conolly’s former band mates in DMZ, bassist Michael Lewis and guitarist Peter Greenberg, as well as drummer Howie Ferguson of the Real Kids. Greenberg later helped form Barrence Whitfield and the Savages.

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Lewis, meanwhile, would go on to play in an early version of Yo La Tengo before quitting music to concentrate on his MIT training in medical research. For him, hearing “Live at the Rat: September 3, 1980” is bittersweet. Music was less a passion for him that it was for Conolly, who’d earned the nickname “Monoman” both for his monomaniacal fixations and his affinity for the monaural sound of older recordings.

The Rat show took place just after Lewis re-entered Conolly’s orbit, he says. He stayed in the group for about 18 months, then left when the band needed a bass player who was willing to tour extensively.

“It was a very brief but very bright time,” says Lewis. That version of Lyres — no. 6 on the family tree, if you’re scoring at home — was “less reverent to the sound of the records we all liked,” as he puts it. “There was an aggressiveness that had a lot of DMZ hold-over. More direct energy.”

Though Conolly can be infamously prickly to work with, Lewis prefers to remember what was thrilling about being in the band.

“That guy had probably more talent than anybody I’ve ever been associated with,” he says.

Always a man of mystery, Conolly asked this reporter to meet him at his latest place of employment, Logan Airport. “I’ll be wearing a fluorescent orange worker’s hat,” he instructed, using his partner’s Facebook account.

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Before clocking in for his shift, he sat down in Terminal E to discuss the past, present, and future of the band that defines him. When Kenny G’s soprano saxophone burbled over the airport sound system, Conolly cringed. He wears his noise-reduction headphones whenever possible, he says.

He’s still hoarding a batch of demos cut around the time of the Rat show, he says, and he also has plenty of songs recorded, but not yet released, over the past two decades.

Raised primarily in upstate New York, he came to Boston to attend Boston University. His mother’s family has deep New England roots, he says: “They were Goodhues. There’s a historic house in Ipswich.”

In the late 1980s, he indulged his inner Californian — Conolly speaks in a kind of surfer dude’s lilt — when he packed up and moved to San Diego. On the West Coast, he tried to put together a sun-and-sand Lyres. To make ends meet, he talked his way into a job in the defense industry, building AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.

“I lost my hearing in one ear the first day on the job,” he says. “I think those helicopters are still in service. Not that I’m into warfare or anything.”

He moved back to Boston after a couple of years and has been here ever since. Conolly says he still brings producer Rick Harte, his old friend from Ace of Hearts Records, into the studio whenever he can.

“He’s really good with adding ideas, interjecting things,” he says. “It’s a good creative process.”

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The “Live at the Rat” album is a product of Crypt Records, the punk-and-reissues label run by Tim Warren — “the ultimate fan,” Lewis says — out of Germany. It opens with “Mighty Idy,” which was also the first track on DMZ’s debut. The setlist includes “Long Gone,” the signature song of Greenberg’s short-lived, late-’70s Cincinnati band the Customs; covers of “Louie Louie” and the Supremes; and a one-two punch of Lyres haymakers “How Do You Know” and “Don’t Give It Up Now.”

The recording was provided by longtime Boston musician and impresario Erik Lindgren, who taped the show on a reel-to-reel machine, with one microphone patched into the soundboard and the other in the back of the room.

“In the pre-iPhone era, people tended to be kind of sneaky about recording,” Conolly says. “Now you can do the worst show in the world and it’s gonna be on YouTube the next day. Ouch.”

Not that he’s in a position to critique his performance on “Live at the Rat.”

“I have a copy,” he says. “Frankly, I haven’t listened to it.”

LYRES

With Classic Ruins and the Modifiers. At the Middle East Upstairs, Cambridge, Jan. 11 at 6:30 p.m. (doors). $10, www.mideastoffers.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.