Have you ever played that game, "The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"? The actor has worked so often and with so many people that he is never any more than six steps away from anyone related to the entertainment business, a connection completed usually via Robert DiNiro. One time, when I was in high school, I connected Bacon to Angela Lansbury in fewer than four steps, an accomplishment that won me bragging rights among my very socially adept friends for at least a fortnight.
I mention this trivia-fest-cum-drinking game because I feel that central Jersey has its very own Kevin Bacon in Chris Harford, an artistic jack-of-all-trades whose art and music will be featured Saturday, December 17, at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street. Harford has played with a lot of people, and when I say a lot, I mean it. Harford’s website features an extensive family tree of sorts for his aptly named Band of Changes. He is perhaps most proud of playing with singer-guitarist Richard Thompson in New York State in 1992. He also gets around, in his own way, appearing, for example on Michael Feldman’s "Whaddya Know," on NPR this past summer.
The name, Band of Changes — whose lineup constantly changes based on whim and availability — makes sense for a guy whose style cannot be pinned down. When I ask Harford in a phone interview to categorize his music, he laughs and answers simply, "I write songs and I perform them." Indeed, anyone who listens to even a couple of seconds of the mp3’s available at www.chrisharford.com will instantly recognize that there is no box that could contain Harford’s music. "Into the Universe," a product of Harford’s late-90’s band, Angeldust, is a spacey, distorted tune of the axe-wielding variety that features Claude Coleman Jr. on drums and Parliament Funkadelic’s Kidd Funkadelic on guitar. On the other end of the spectrum is "Joe Strummer’s Midnight Dream," recorded in the middle of the night against the backdrop of the chirping of crickets that are heard throughout the song. Listen to it all the way to the end of the track. You’ll want to go camping with John Cage. The point is, I can’t label Harford, as much as it would give me satisfaction to do so.
It seems that the strongest indicators of his sound are the musicians with whom he surrounds himself. Over the course of his 43 years, he has been a part of innumerable projects. He began writing songs and playing guitar (self-taught) while attending Princeton High School (Class of 1980) and his first Princeton High School band called Random Joe and the Strillards with Sean Keenan. "We were quite a good young band, learning covers by the Cars, Lynryd Skynyrd, Clapton, Stones, the Police, Talking HEads, the Clash, Devo, abut we had soem grat originals too, most specifically Sean’s hit, ‘Mormon Blues,’" says Harford. "Had we stayed together we would’ve been a cross between the Allman Brothers, XTC, and the Replacements."
He started college at Connecticut College, where he started Three Colors, a self-propelled recording band, in the early 1980s. Harford transferred sophomore year to Massachusetts College of Art but Three Colors rocked on — and Harford had his first glimpse of indie success came in the early 1980s in Boston. "We lived like the Monkees. We shared a house on the outskirts of Boston and practiced nearly every night in the basement," says Harford. They became quite well-known in Boston and moved for a time to London in 1986, then back to New Jersey. His subsequent solo career kicked off with two collection of demos titled "The Saddest Songs Ever" and "The Anatomy of Melancholy," recorded over a period of four years with Adam Lasus at Studio Red in Philadelphia, and Greg Frey at Graphic Sound Studios in Ringoes. Today he’s the front man for the Band of Changes.
Harford’s songs have featured lap steel, fiddle, distorted guitar, and even horns, courtesy of Urban Blight, a truly excellent ska band that sadly disbanded in 1995. I hear Billy Strauss and Moxy Frvus, U2 and P-Funk. I hear bluegrass and Devo. And, during at least one point over the course of my listening, I definitely heard a moog. To further illustrate his style: He dared me over the course of the interview to write that he rides unicorns and plays the spoons with his pinky toes. Even though it was a joke, I wouldn’t exactly put these things past him.
Although he seems to want to avoid the term "jam-band," I can’t help but observe in his music the communicative, circular elements thatcharacterize that type of group. Whenever he plays with new people, hejust asks that they "bring what they bring to it. I don’t expect them to play what’s on the record."
To talk to him, it becomes obvious that music is a natural, automatic part of his being. His family was certainly musical. The youngest of four children, Harford’s siblings play the guitar and the banjo. While Harford was growing up in Princeton, his father, director of the Institute for Astronautics and Aeronautics in New York City, played the ukulele on the train ride to work.
Harford has a kaleidoscopic sort of musical soul, colorful butaccessible, and his art follows the same thread. His mother, a painterand founding kindergarten teacher at Stuart Country Day School of theSacred Heart, shared with him her sense of color and showed him his way around a paintbrush. She brought him to museums in Italy and Manhattan, turning him on especially to folk artists of eastern Europe. At the house of Jacques Hoffman, Harford’s best friend and son of a Princeton University Haitian studies professor, he fell in love with the family’s own collection of Haitian folk art.
A 1985 graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, Harford felt intimidated by the painting and drawing professors there. He chose instead performance art classes that often featured guest lecturers, notably MIT linguist-activist Noam Chomsky. Perhaps this path was more appropriate for him, anyway. He seems not to be the kind of artist who really needs that sort of formal training, although he does wish that he had not waited to start making art until after he graduated.
Harford describes his own brand of colorful paintings and postage stamp-riddled mixed media and oil as "naive folk art," and it certainly pays a warm homage to his earlier experiences with visual art. His work will be on view at Small World through Tuesday, January 3.
Harford has released two albums in the past three years. "Sing, Breathe and Be Merry" is a 14-track compilation of tunes collected between 1998 and 2002. The more recent "Time Warp Deck" is a live studio recording that Harford describes as a "stripped-down, raw record," with songs that run the gamut from a cover of Dylan’s "Ev’ry Grain of Sand," to the very heavy "Ragged Ford," written by Jersey’s own Billy Hector and Susan Last Ovica. Both CDs were released on
Harford’s own Soul Select Records. In all, Harford has released seven albums, including a recording of a performance at the legendary CBGB’s, and "Be Headed," released by Elektra in 1992.
At Harford’s December 17 appearance at Small World Coffee he will be playing with, among other things, an upright bassist and an accordion player. Joining him will be the guys from Ween, an alternarock group from New Hope and good friends of Harford. Ween has had its own successful run of things, having just completed a tour andcurrently working on finishing the next album in a long line of releases.
Harford has even collected a tidy coterie of delicious reviews, such as a 1992 New Yorker review, which appeared following the release party for "Be Headed," that said: "Harford makes other singer-songwriters seem like the navel-gazing no-talents they are: He can rock furious feedback onslaughts as well as delve into the deepest, darkest depths of his acoustic soul."
Chris Harford, Saturday, December 17, 8:30 p.m., Small World
Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street. With the Band of Changes and exhibit of
Harford’s painting. 609-924-4377.