For Buskin & Batteau, old folk gets new start
It was an easy decision for David Buskin and Robin Batteau to make in the fall of 2008: The singer-songwriters would get back together as Buskin & Batteau and entertain a new generation while drawing legions of their old, loyal fans.
Popular on the Cambridge folk music scene in the 1970s and ’80s, Buskin and Batteau are touring again after 18 years mostly apart. And if audience reaction is any barometer, they are as relevant today as they were more than 30 years ago.
“It’s fantastic,’’ said Buskin, gratified at the size and enthusiasm of the crowds attending their concerts. “I kind of thought if the old fans were still around, we would get some of them. But I’m happy to see how many new faces there are. We hadn’t been a working act for so long, I didn’t know if our music would still have whatever it had when we were younger.’’
Buskin is 66, Batteau 62. From 1979 to 1990, they thrived as Buskin & Batteau, in recordings and concerts. They even had separate, lucrative careers writing jingles for commercials. But then they took a break, mostly to spend more time with their families while pursuing other work. Now they’re back on tour. When Buskin & Batteau play Club Passim in Cambridge on May 1, the intimate, 125-seat music room in Harvard Square will fade back in time.
“I was always so glad to just walk in there,’’ Buskin said of the venue once known as Club 47, which in its various incarnations provided an early sound stage for such stalwarts as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, and Tom Rush. “It just felt great. It felt like a second home.’’
“We played there two or three times a year, and each time we played for like four nights,’’ said Batteau, who was born in New York but raised in Cambridge from the age of 2. He now resides in Westport, Conn., with his wife of 22 years, the former Wendy Goldwyn of Newton, and their son, Robinson, 17. “Passim was the perfect watering hole for the beasts of our particular zoo. It was where everything sounded the way it should and everything felt the way it should.’’
For a portion of his time apart from Batteau — B&B actually did a few charity and special-occasion shows together during that period — Buskin was performing as one-third of the comedy/folk troupe Modern Man. Then, in 2008, a member of Modern Man, George Wurzbach, opted out of the trio for a full-time teaching position at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
“So I said, ‘OK, no more Modern Man. What do I want to do now?’ ’’ Buskin related. “What I really wanted to do was Buskin & Batteau because that was the most fun I’d ever had playing music. I called Robin and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ’’
The reunion took place during the 2008 presidential campaign. Buskin & Batteau officially returned at the Boston Folk Festival that fall, their trademark comedic banter between tunes intact.
“That [election] really energized us, put a charge into a lot of people,’’ said Buskin, a Brown University graduate and native of the Bronx who lives in Katonah, N.Y. “We got busy the day after the election and wrote the new album in a couple of months, recorded it, and the rest, as they say, is geography — er, history.’’
The result was “Red Shoes and Golden Hearts,’’ a 12-song CD, selections of which have played well on B&B’s current tour. Audiences have warmed to the new tunes but also have given standing ovations to Batteau’s signature solo from the ’70s, “The Boy With the Violin,’’ and the Buskin standard from that era, “When I Need You Most of All.’’
Sophie Buskin, David’s 19-year-old daughter with a sweet, mature sound, sings on two tracks of the “Red Shoes’’ CD — the guitar-and-drum-driven ballad “Living on the Edge of Dreams’’ and the soft coming-of-age-in-Cambridge cut “Just a Girl.’’ Robinson Batteau plays the organ on track 12’s rock-ish “Stop Listening.’’
The major reason Batteau — a Harvard grad with a degree in biochemistry — dropped largely from sight around 1990 was to spend more time with his family. That was why B&B’s resurfacing in 2003 was short-lived. The pair played Passim, got excited, drew media attention, then realized that personal responsibilities far outweighed professional aspirations. A proposed tour was scrapped, the reunion tabled.
Now, Batteau said, is the right time to be on the road again. The fire is back in their furnace, a full-blown tour is being booked, the reunion is real.
Matt Smith, Club Passim’s managing director, said he was getting questions about the May 1 show as early as last fall. “People were asking, ‘When are tickets going to go on sale? When are tickets going to go on sale?’ ’’ Smith said. “There’s a big excitement. People are really ready to have them back in this room again.’’
Buskin & Batteau may be preparing to return to the club that was a home base for so many years, but their legacy in folk music was cemented long ago.
“Very literate music, excellent songwriting,’’ said Laurie Laba, who with her husband, Neale Eckstein, has presented B&B and Buskin with Modern Man at their Fox Run House Concert series in Sudbury. “They’re fabulous. When they played here last fall, they made the audience very happy. Everything is intelligent. There’s no pandering, if that’s the right term. They’re smart and quick, and they talk to their audience like they’re adults. They’re really fun to be with.’’
The comedic banter and the chemistry between the musicians help explain B&B’s lasting appeal.
“We complement each other so well,’’ said Batteau, who during his long hiatus worked in the studio, writing songs for other artists and doing commercials for TV and radio. “Each of us has as much fun accompanying the other as we do singing our own songs.’’
Is there a chance that both Sophie Buskin and Robinson Batteau will someday join their fathers full time and make it a quartet?
“Sophie has a wonderful voice,’’ Buskin said. “I wish I could get her to sing more, but she’s 19 and still finding out what she wants to do. I can’t fault her for not knowing at 19. I’m 66, and I’m still thinking it over.’’
“Maybe when David and I are too decrepit to travel,’’ Batteau said, “we’ll just send Sophie and Robinson out and call it Buskin & Batteau. What the heck.’’