“I’ve been around long enough, trying different things, and kind of hanging in the background, watching how things go, and now that I’m finally putting my chips on the table — it feels cool.”
So says singer, songwriter and multi-threat musician Neil Cleary, who for the past decade has quietly gathered a loyal following for his tuneful pop, rock, and alt-country turns, and has just released his first CD under his own name, Numbers Add Up.
Raised in Vermont, Cleary first surfaced in the early 1990s as a drummer in Burlington indie bands, including the regionally prominent group the Pants, but his musical adventures and inclinations were pointedly eclectic.
Son of a former Jesuit priest who wrote Broadway-style shows and liturgical music, Cleary was exposed early to the crafted pop song tradition. Burlington was home to an active rock scene that produced jam band Phish, and an active college folk scene, with which Cleary also kept some arms-length ties as host of a daily radio show called “Folkin’ Idiot”.
“I once wanted to be the confessional sort of singer-songwriter I despise now,” he admits. “You know — intoning your journal over open tuning.” At one ready-for-anything local bar, Nectar’s, he was among those answering regular requests of locals for country music. He played mandolin and guitar with the Last Elm String Band for traditional contra dances, even as his own interests were tending toward the jazz stretches of Charles Mingus and Tony Williams.
These varied influences came together in his best-known project, the CD Made To Feel by a supposed indie-rock group called Stupid Club — mainly Cleary himself on a variety of instruments, joined sometimes by Burlington friends, in styles ranging from Celt-rock to blaring drone to California sunny to steel-drenched country. Stupid Club vocals, uncredited on the album, matched all of these styles dead on, ranged high and low — and all were Cleary. To complete the self-effacing mystery, his songs were credited to somebody named Tad Cautious. Praise followed, but hardly fame.
After a frustrating six months in Austin, Texas, soaking up the scene there, Cleary found a welcoming home in New York City. Audiences beyond New York have probably seen him most often as an uncredited touring drummer with young “’60s acid pop” band the Essex Green. But it was at the homey downtown bar 9C, former site of the Alphabet City Opry, that he developed his current projects.
Hank Williams’ Lonesome Cheatin’ Hearts Club Band, which started as “a solo gig on subway platforms,” plays about 70 Hank songs, and nothing else, in dead-on 1940s string-band style. With Cleary singing and playing acoustic guitar, ex-Blue Chieftain Steve Antonakas on electric guitar, Diane Stockwell on fiddle, and others decked out in suits to match the style, this band became a local favorite, playing regular Sunday morning breakfast shows.
Meanwhile, Cleary’s appearances at 9C under his own name became a room-packing Tuesday night institution. He mixed his own knowing, crafted pop songs with electric turns on Dock Boggs ballads or sophisticated urban blues. Blood Oranges axeman Mark Spencer has been the regular guitar lead, and musicians of that caliber, including steel man Jon Graboff and keyboard wizard Bob Packwood, join him on the new disc.
Cleary delivers undeniably catchy tunes such as the opener “Nobody’s Fool”, the sweet love song “Oh, You”, and the closing anthem for all small struggling bands, “When All Of Us Get Famous”. His up-front performances are smart, engaging, and singular. And he finally throws Cautious to the winds.