The end of August invites the onset of darkness just a little bit earlier – in this case, around 8:30 p.m. On this Friday at the John E.N. Howard Bandshell, it's not hard to feel summer's presence trying to stick around against the odds, amid temperatures that hovered all day throughout the mid- to late 80s.
The Sixth Generation's members busy themselves with the routine of tearing down – rolling amplifiers, keyboards and miscellaneous equipment to a truck and trailer that waits nearby, on Port Street. Fans stand in clusters, waiting for some face time with this legendary Berrien County band – who reunited in 2010, after 40 years apart.
The band have just finished a rousing, hour-long set for a packed crowd that mixes well-known '60s nuggets (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “Proud Mary,” “You Really Got Me”) less obvious fare (“Expressway,” “Love Potion No. 9”), and a handful of originals (“Glad I Didn't Die Before I Got Old,” “Rock 'N' Roll Me,” “That Was The Time”) that suggest another chapter waiting to be written.
From keyboardist Ken Hamrick's perspective, the new CD, THAT WAS, THIS IS – which will be released locally on October 13, at the band's CD release party at Orchard Hills Country Club, in Niles – offers the ideal chance to tell a different story. “We've had a lot of articles about our history, the whole 40-year hiatus – but we haven't really had anything from the perspective of our music,” Hamrick says. “Obviously, we have a lot of Baby Boomers, but also notice that the music is also enjoyed by teens, young adults, twenty something and little kids. We had some folks up here in their eighties.”
Singer Fred (“J.J.” or, “Jumpin' Jack Flash”) Bachman – who still lives in Michigan, with bassist Paul “General” Davies, and keyboardist Fred Hulce – seconds that emotion with quiet confidence, saying, “We have a lot to write about, because we have all these life experiences.” (Hamrick, drummer Dave Walenga and guitarist-saxophonist Steve Blevins live in Maryland and Virginia.)
A hallmark of that approach is “That Was The Time,” which Hamrick sees as the beginning of an untapped genre in “Boomer Music.” The title is a direct nod to “This Is The Time,” which Hamrick and Bachman co-wrote in 1967 – and, until now, remained the band's sole recorded original. “When we got back together a couple years ago, I decided it would be really nice to have a song about us,” Hamrick says. “It's basically autobiographical, but I didn't want it to be just about us. Any Baby Boomer can identify with the lyrics.”
For Bachman, his former band's return puts an exclamation mark on a story interrupted in 1970 – when real life just couldn't be fended off any longer, and everyone had to go their separate ways, after coming close to breaking out nationally. “We're probably one in a million bands out there, but we are not one in a million '60s bands. There aren't many people who are gonna write in our style, or the words that we write – so that takes us a little bit out of the crowd,” he says.
Guitarist-saxophonist Steve Blevins agrees. He replaced original founder John Dale, who retired last fall, after the initial reunion activities. “In a way, it's a good time for this sort of band,” Blevins observes. “People can look at it ['60s music] again, see it in a different perspective, or be nostalgic about it, if they like. We're getting a lot of response from younger kids, too.”
There were numerous signs of that phenemonon on this particular night, which unfolded to a packed crowd stretched as far as the eye could see in the curved, bowl-like area of the Bandshell.
At certain points -- such as during "Rock 'N' Roll With Me" -- an all-ages conga line broke out, with no other agenda beyond surrendering to the beat, and losing themselves in the sound as they clapped their enthusiasm aloud.
“What We Been Waiting For?”
Once they separated, the Sixth Generation's members kept music in their lives to varying degrees. Davies, who still lives in Niles, would periodically take out the bass – minus the amplifier that he didn't have anymore – to see what kinds of sounds he wanted to make.
Bachman – who grew up in Niles, the home of yet another '60s favorite son, in Tommy James – manage to blend music and teaching without missing the proverbial beat. “In fact, always played the guitar for the kids,” he recalls, laughing. “We had our own songs that we wrote. Music's always been a part of my life. It's in me. I can't not do this.”
Even so, nobody could have seen reforming on the back of a conversation between Davies and Walenga.
“Dave and I kept close over the years, because he still had family in Niles, and he was there fairly often,” Davies recalls. “One day, we were shooting the breeze about the good old days, and my daughter said: 'Well, why don't you guys get the band back together?' Whoever heard of such a thing?”
Once the word went out, nobody waited to answer the call. “I said, 'What we been waiting for?' Literally, that was the first words out of my mouth,” Hamrick says. “All of us, to the man, were in it all the way.”
Bachman looked forward to finding a new creative outlet – having written numerous songs over the years, “and sending them to different people,” he recalls. “I had a decent amount of attention, but never got a hit to anybody that was able to do it.”
“That's the thing that I'm actually having the most fun with, discovering that I'm a songwriter,” agrees Hulce, who has already co-written five tunes with Bachman. “I'd always noodled around on the piano. Part of that is just that the technology is so much better now. If I get an idea, I can just hit a button on the synthesizer, and it's not lost. Back in the day, we were hauling around a 450-pound Hammond organ.”
“Still – There Was Something There”
Since their return, the Sixth Generation have gotten plenty of reminders – as if they needed them – that other people are interested, too. For this particular night – which closed out St. Joseph Today's summer concert series – a circle of longtime fans made the trip out from Marcellus, and Niles.
Another sign came at the first full band rehearsal, in South Bend, as Davies remembers. “Nobody was supposed to be there, 'cause it was our first time getting together – there were about 25 people!” he laughs. “I don't know how they found out about it, but they were there. They said, 'Well, you guys are not bad...' Obviously, it was rusty, but still – there was something there.”
Blevins joined after reading a Craigslist ad entitled, “'60s Music,” and figured his ship had finally come in. Four years ago, Blevins moved from New York to Maryland, but had only played in three bands. “I wrote and said, 'I think the '60s was the most creative decade in pop music.' They were inventing it as they went along, really,” he says.
The first rehearsals with Hamrick and Walenga proved “a little frightening, because I stood out a lot more, and made a hell a lot of mistakes,” Blevins smiles. “But we practiced in Ron's house, in Virginia, and they said, 'Yeah, why don't you come back?' I said, 'What?' I wasn't expecting that.”
After a few full band rehearsals, Blevins felt surer about his contributions, and the potential that lies ahead. “They're some of the best musicians I've ever played with, maybe the best, as a group,” Blevins declares. “The original tunes that I've heard are damn good. Ron, Dave, J.J. and Fred Hulce are writing all the time. I'm hoping that I can get a tune or two of mine in. We'll see how it goes.”
“This Is A Golden Opportunity”
Walenga, who's focused himself until now on packing away the remains of his drumkit, stops to interject with a joke: “I don't know if he told you about the practices, but they're insane! We'll start at 10 in the morning, and get done by six o'clock at night.”
Blevins returns the punchline. “That's one that bugs me – these guys like to get up real early: 'What the hell is this?'” he laughs.
“Dave and I are up in the morning,” Hamrick nods. “We're probably texting by seven, seven-thirty in the morning – [having] had five cups of coffee by then.”
“People hate morning people, because we're just as good at night as in the morning,” Walenga jokes. “We just keep on a roll, we're like the Energizer bunnies.”
As far as what happens next, nobody's getting into the Muhammad Ali-style prediction business tonight – but, suffice to say, the creative energy has been buzzing sufficiently to generate material for a second CD. What started as a chance to reignite the old camaraderie has grown into a determination not to rest on any laurels – why think about coasting now, when there's so many more worlds left to conquer?
By Walenga's reckoning, the band hadn't even seen St. Joseph's confines in almost 45 years, after faring well in a “Battle Of The Bands” competition at the old Shadowland Ballroom – which now lives and breathes again, only a stone's throw from Silver Beach County Park, in an impressively refurbished white building of its own.
Obviously, with band members living in two major regions, some logistical compromises are necessary, but anything else is fair game, to Hamrick: “We want to take this thing as far as we can take it. I am a CEO of a corporation, so I have a lot of background in how to run a business. We are promoting ourselves everywhere we can.”
“Of course, we'd like to play to more and more people, have people enjoy our music,” Bachman agrees. “But, you know, money isn't the object. It never was. It was the people. Do we enjoy it? Are they enjoying it? That's as good as it gets, because the money means absolutely nothing.”
As far as Hulce is concerned, the strength of those long-standing ties helped the band pick up from where it last left off, so long ago – and why he's eager to see what happens next.
“We really came to conclude afterwards that we'd all been waiting for that phone call for 40 years,” he laughs.
“I think we all had pretty much the same idea: 'This is a golden opportunity we've been handed. Let's not squander it,'” Davies agrees. “Things haven't changed in 40 years...it's been very enjoyable.”
The Sixth Generation celebrated its new CD on October 13 with a release party at Orchard Hills Country Club, in Niles, MI. For further details (and future shows), visit: www.thesixthgeneration.com.