Harmony With Heart
The Rick Arcusa Band
By Armond Blackwater
I was actually heading to see Chroma’s return to the Sundog Diner, but it was early and they were still setting up. With an hour to kill I decided to check out the act playing at Ragtime.
I walked in and grabbed a stout just as the band started their set. I was expecting to see the usual rock band playing the usual suspects of tried and true, severely worn standards. Much to my surprise this band proved to be something special. Unconsciously, I broke out paper and started writing notes about The Rick Arcusa Band – R.A.B.
What struck me first was that there were two females in the band, a bassist and a keyboard player. I’m a sucker for bands with chicks in them. They provide a welcome harmonic relief from the testosterone-driven bands with one singer and lots of guitars.
Soon my attention swung to lead singer Rick Arcusa whose voice showed great control over a large range, was emotive, and versatile. He was also a solid guitarist, playing mostly rhythm while delivering excellent versions of songs like Don’t Mess Around With Jim (Jim Croce), Ventura Highway (America), What Makes The World Go Round (Bee Gees), and that Beatles tune that goes “Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.” (Don’t know the actual title, I was never into the Fab Four.)
Bassist Susan Dunn tore the place up with a rousing rendition of Me & Bobby McGee. If you’re going to cover Joplin you’d better have the pipes to back it up. Susan demonstrated that she was up to the challenge transporting me back to Berkeley and 1969. The song was done with such love that I felt tears well up. That happens when a group of musicians perform a song that well, with so much heart that I feel they are talking to my soul.
The group switched instruments frequently to match the mood of each tune. Kevin Dunn began on mandolin, moved to bass, then to acoustic guitar, and finally to electric guitar, playing all quite well. He is a marvelous mandolin player, though. I’m guessing that mandolin is his home instrument. Mandolin worked perfectly on Lyin’ Eyes (Eagles). Glenn Frey (the author) would love it. Kevin also sang lead on a few songs and harmony on many more.
Danny Southworth fades into the background because his drumming is solid, supportive, and unobtrusive. That is the mark of an accomplished professional who has worked long and hard at his craft. The tight pocket that he created with bassist Susan provided a solid foundation for the group.
Vanya Arcusa stands behind a Roland X7 (top) — a miraculous-sounding synthesizer — and a Korg (bottom, not sure what model) keyboard stack. Vanya drew the best out of the Roland. She has a knack for layering in just the right sounds at exactly the right time. On Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett) she lit up the organ part on just a clone-wheel (musician lingo for a synthetic Hammond-sounding organ). I could only imagine how good she would sound on a real Hammond with a wooden Leslie.
Before I knew it I was ordering my third stout. I had become absorbed in the music, time had lost relevance, my ears listened, my hand wrote, and my face smiled broadly.
During their break, Rick quietly played Reunited for Susan. Soon they were softly harmonizing the lyrics together. It was cool that they were taking time out of their break to work out harmonies. Now, that is dedication.
Surprise again: Rick played the piano part perfectly. Then, he moved on to Carole King’s It’s Too Late, and again played it perfectly. Keyboard players find both songs challenging. I know, I’m a keyboard player. It was clear to me that Rick is one of those natural musicians – the kind of cat that can pick up any instrument and master it in short order.
Eventually, I trotted across the street to see Chroma, one of my favourite bands, but on their break I jumped back to Ragtime.
Rick exudes a passion for music that is seen far too seldom in our karaoke times. A demonstration of that passion came succinctly in his cover of Stormy Monday, which he played from the blue side of his soul. His raucous, stringing, tender, fiery guitar solo blew me away. You don’t see many dedicated blues guitarists play the song any better. Up until that point, he had mostly played rhythm with a few leads that I couldn’t hear very well, (it could’ve been me; I’ve spent too many hours on loud stages over the past 40 years), but with this song he convinced me that he was an accomplished guitarist as well. I made a mental note to stop underestimating this cat.
Soon, Rick and Kevin were exchanging guitar licks, bouncing off each other in the grand Southern Rock tradition.
Further examples of Rick’s generosity became apparent as I watched him pass lead vocal duties off to Susan and Kevin, taking a step back to be the sideman and backup singer on many songs. I mean, the guys name is on the sign. I expected more display of ego. But that’s not what Rick Arcusa is about. And, that is not what the Rick Arcusa Band is about. No, these folks are about harmony.
Harmony resonates from this group. I’m not just talking about vocal harmonies but more importantly the harmony of spirits; an intimate connection of souls with great love for each other and a mutual love of music. Their voices blend together beautifully and so do their souls.
In the years since, the group has gone through several lineup changes, as all bands do, but the direction has never strayed from the vision Rick Arcusa has set.