|Charlie Chesterman, who is battling colon cancer, says of Sunday’s Scruffy the Cat semi-reunion, “This whole show that’s coming up was out of left field for me.’’ (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
An all-star benefit celebrates the music of the former Scruffy the Cat frontman
Ask Charlie Chesterman how it feels to be the guest of honor at a star-studded benefit to raise money for his battle with colon cancer, and he responds with a boisterous cackle. “That’s my answer — laughter is my answer,’’ an amiable and upbeat Chesterman says over the phone from his Dorchester home. “I’m actually feeling OK at the moment. Sometimes I’ve got [bad] days and [bad] weeks, and sometimes I’m kinda up. Right now I’m kinda up, so that’s good.’’
Chesterman, 51, a singer-songwriter who has been undergoing chemotherapy since being diagnosed last year, is best known around these parts as the former frontman for Scruffy the Cat, an ’80s roots-rock outfit from Boston that played as hard as it worked. With its raucous live shows and maverick spirit cut with a reverence for tradition, Scruffy helped spark what would come to be called the underground “cowpunk’’ or “alt-country’’ movements of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“There would be no Wilco without Scruffy the Cat, because of that hybrid [they brought] of rock ’n’ roll with a punk edge,’’ says John Fremer, a guitarist who played with Chesterman in his post-Scruffy band, the Harmony Rockets. “It’s not really hyperbole to say that a lot of the alt-country scene wouldn’t exist without them. I learned so much from Charlie as a songwriter, and as a rock ’n’ roll spirit, I’d put him up there with Iggy Pop and Joan Jett.’’
This Sunday, a who’s who of local luminaries will take the stage at T.T. the Bear’s for a daylong tribute to Chesterman and his music. And for the first time since they disbanded more than 20 years ago, Scruffy the Cat is set to reunite for what band members promise will be a mini-set of seat-of-the-pants surprises.
“We’re going to get up there and wing it,’’ says Scruffy drummer Randall Lee Gibson, who will join Chesterman and Scruffy alums Stephen Fredette (guitar), and Burns Stanfield (keyboards) on stage. Stanfield, an ordained minister, will head to T.T.’s straight from church. “What I said to Charlie was, it’s going to be fluid,’’ Gibson says. “He got a real hoot out of that. But we toured so heavily and played so many shows — sometimes, we’d play four or five nights a week — that I think we’ll remember the songs. We probably played them a couple thousand times.’’
Even though the principals hesitate to call it a full-blown reunion — Scruffy bassist Mac Paul Stanfield (Burns’s brother) cannot make it out here from his home in Des Moines (also Chesterman’s hometown); and banjo player Stona Fitch will be in New York celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary — it’s as close as anyone could, or would, ever expect given the circumstances. Besides his own serious health issues, Chesterman’s old guitar foil Fredette has struggled with lymphoma for several years (which, Fredette reports, has been in remission). Even Chesterman is surprised.
“Out of all of us, I think I’m the one that has been the biggest foot-dragger about getting back together,’’ says Chesterman, who has recorded six solo albums, three of which were released on the Salem-based Rykodisc/Slow River label. “But between the health situation that Stephen has and I have, it’s kind of changed my perspective a little bit. If everybody really wants to do this and I’m the only holdout, then I just need to shut up and get with the program. It’s time for me to just say yes.’’
Plus, Chesterman says he feels “healthy enough’’ to take another stab at Scruffy staples like “My Baby, She’s Alright,’’ a tune that landed them on MTV in 1987, around the time the group was sharing stages with the likes of the Replacements, Los Lobos, and — er — Paula Abdul (a Spin magazine anniversary party that, to this day, remains a “ghastly’’ memory for Fredette).
“I haven’t really been able to play guitar for a year or so, and I think that Stephen has been in a similar boat,’’ Chesterman says before suddenly brightening, as if at the punch line of a preposterous joke. “So I think between the two guitar players, there’s going to be very little guitar playing going on! Maybe we’ll just hum or just shake maracas instead.’’
You can practically hear Fredette also shaking his head over the phone. “We were supposed to do this a year or so ago, and that’s when I was sick,’’ Fredette says. “So I guess it does take a rather dire situation for it to happen.’’ All the more reason to revel in Sunday’s semi-reunion, he says, and let the songs (the set list’s a secret) fly.
“Obviously, we weren’t a band that had a huge impact, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that a lot of the recorded stuff wasn’t as strong [as the performances],’’ Fredette says of Scruffy’s two albums and two EPs released on Relativity Records. “But live, it was like a bomb going off.’’
“In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know where Scruffy fit in,’’ Chesterman muses. “But it is amazing to still, every once in a while, get an e-mail from a fan saying, ‘I was listening to your record the other day and you guys were a great band.’ We had a really good time and people connected with it that way.’’
Longtime Chesterman producer Pete Weiss has been poring over tapes and prepping the songwriter’s solo material for digital release (efforts are also underway to obtain the rights to Scruffy’s catalog, which has long been out of print). He recalls feeling an instant musical kinship.
“I was always happy to indulge Charlie in his harebrained schemes, such as recording his vocals in the back seat of a car’’ — Weiss’s 1982 Buick Skylark, in fact — “which doesn’t necessarily sound good, but creates an intimacy,’’ Weiss says. “Or he’d bring in a 55-gallon drum and say, ‘Hey, let’s make an echo chamber out of it!’ He’s got amazing ideas, he’s got wacky ideas, he’s got weird schemes. And he’s happy to shoot himself in the foot occasionally in the interest of art.’’
Chesterman may not be done with making music just yet. He’s got some songs he would still like to record, and depending on how things go Sunday, future Scruffy shows with all members present have not been ruled out. A short time ago, he never thought he would play again.
“It was easier for me to devoid myself of that part of my life and concentrate on trying to get better,’’ says Chesterman. “So this whole show that’s coming up was out of left field for me. But to have it all come together, it’s like, yeah that’s right. I do play music, and I can play music if I want to. Maybe that’s what I should be doing again.’’
Jonathan Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.