Meet the guys behind “Always on Insane,” a brilliant bit of multifaceted rock ’n’ roll: There’s the 67-year-old ring leader. There are the dudes that helm a “live karaoke” night. There are a couple of 21-year-olds, one who is part of this ensemble’s three-guitar lineup, the other on trombone. There’s the Berklee College of Music sax instructor who met the rest of the gang after jamming with a few of them on a complete airing of “Dark Side of the Moon.” And there’s the drummer who used to be a sportswriter and rightly notes, “We all bring a little something different to this.”
Collectively, this is Rick Berlin with the Nickel & Dime Band. Berlin has been a provocative creative force around Boston since the 1970s, and this latest endeavor furthers that legacy without aping it.
In his latest artistic pursuits, you could say Berlin has become a committeeman. With Nickel & Dime, he constantly deflects the attention to his seven band members. And roughly two years ago, he partnered with a handful of other deeply rooted Jamaica Plain residents to launch the JP Music Festival, which returns for its sophomore outing on Sept. 8 from noon to
7 p.m. at Pinebank Baseball Field near Jamaica Pond.
A friend of Berlin’s approached him after a show one night at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge asking why there wasn’t some sort of big celebration of the talent residing in Jamaica Plain. Aside from basement parties, there are few venues in the neighborhood for local talent to congregate.
“I went to a laundromat, ran into Shamus Moynihan [of Midway Cafe], and we got an eight-person committee together and got all of the parks and permits done quickly,” Berlin says.
The committee functions as a nonprofit and meets weekly. None of the performers are paid, nor does anyone organizing the festival draw a salary from it. Ongoing fund-raising and local sponsorships keep the event afloat.
This year, the JP Fest will feature two stages catering to all manner of musical styles, so long as someone connected to the performance lives or works (preferably both) in JP. Approximately 24 acts will be booked, though the opening is set: a performance by the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra (“A lot of JP people are in it,” Berlin assures). And like last year, the festival is bent on bringing out families, so there are games and activities for kids, not to mention a makeshift local-music store featuring work by the participating artists.
“This event just shows what an awesome part of the world this is,” Berlin says.
Whether talking about his neighborhood or his music, Berlin is upbeat these days. You hear it in his voice, see it in his concerts, and spot it in the work he is creating. Berlin’s signature flair for the theatrical courses through the tunes he brings to Nickel & Dime, and the band in turn builds sturdy arrangements around them, sometimes whipping up a percolating ska beat (“Summer Roof”) or conjuring a contemplative ballad (“I’m Jes’ Sayin’ ”) or letting loose flat-out bar rockers (“Hilary [Galway Girl]”). Most of the time, though, Berlin and the band are stirring the pot, blending light and dark shades in ways that beg for deeper and continued listens.
“I was in other bands that would say, ‘That’s corny,’ but these guys say, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Berlin explains during a break in a recent band rehearsal in his Jamaica Plain apartment.
Guitarist Ricky McLean offers the simple explanation, “We all trust each other.”
The roots of this project go back a couple of years. The ever-busy Berlin was performing routinely with his nephew, trombonist Sam Dudley, and Sam’s friend, guitarist Jesse Adams-Lukowsky. Berlin, a Jamaica Plain stalwart, then spotted the Nickel & Dime Band playing outside Bella Luna.
“They could play anything,” Berlin says.
And that’s their job, supplying the music for Wednesday night karaoke in JP (first at the Milky Way, now at Costello’s).
Through a series of musical to-and-fros, Berlin, Dudley, and Adams-Lukowsky joined forces with Nickel & Dime’s bassist Tom Appleman and guitarists Rob Manochio and McLean. Drummer Al Rad-zikowski was filling in the night Berlin met with Nickel & Dime, and he kept his spot in the ensuing work.
Appleman, an instructor at Berklee College of Music, staged a live re-creation of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in early 2011. He invited Berlin to perform some of the performance’s spoken parts, and it was through this project Berlin met saxophonist Dino Govoni, also a Berklee instructor, and convinced him to be part of the expanded Nickel & Dime Band.
“I grew up on the South Shore, so I knew all about Rick’s work with Orchestra Luna and Berlin Airlift,” Govoni says. “Rick’s tunes are strong. They can be played in any context. But it was their strength that caught my ear.”
When the band felt it was time to make a record, the improbable happened.
Berlin recalls being at his job at Doyle’s when he received a letter there. It was a note from a fan of his music in the ’70s and ’80s. She explained how she had seen a magazine article explaining how Berlin was still at it, supporting himself as a waiter while still pursuing his music.
“I didn’t even notice what it was that fell out of the letter. When I picked it up, it was a check for $10,000,” Berlin says.
Carol Bednarz, who is listed as “benefactor” in the album credits, said she had never done anything like that.
“I hadn’t thought about Rick Berlin or his music for 30 years. When I saw that article, all I could think was ‘Oh my God. He is so dedicated to his music,’ ” Bednarz says.
The money, she says, had no strings attached, but she was pleased that it financed a new record. And it further delighted her that Berlin’s current work includes his nephew, as Bednarz first got into Berlin’s music by seeing Orchestra Luna which included Rick’s sister (Sam’s mom).
Dudley himself is pretty enthused to be part of the project, and not just because it strengthens family ties.
“Everyone in the band is at least 20 years older than I am, so there is an incredible amount of experience for me to tap into,” Dudley says. “And the great thing about these guys is that they didn’t shove my ideas away just because I’m younger.”
And the ideas are plentiful, or as Appleman says, “Whatever kind of music you like, it’s on this record.”
In concert, Berlin and Nickel & Dime pull it all together just right. Berlin is dapper in white suit, while his bandmates wear black suits. The three guitars, two horns, bass, drums, and keys intertwine nicely as no one member tries to do too much, letting all the little details build up into a raucous explosion.
That live energy is partially how the CD got its name. The max volume on guitarist Manochio’s amp is labeled “insane,” and McLean one night needled the other guitarist for holding back on stage.
“I said, ‘All right, that’s it. I’m always on insane now,’ ” he recalls.
The phrase stuck because, as Berlin says, “That’s how this band operates. Always on insane.”Scott McLennan can be reached at smclennan1010@
gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.