Six veteran indie-rockers — Deena Shoshkes, Jon Fried, Ed Seifert, Matthew Davis, and Toni and John Baumgartner — have formed a compelling new band, The Campfire Flies, that has been playing in New Jersey and New York for the past few years.
“The band is all about collaboration; there is so much mutual respect,” said Shoshkes, best known as a member of The Cucumbers. “We all love playing each other’s songs. When we arrange them together, magic happens.”
Shoshkes, Davis (of The Thousand Pities), and Seifert and John Baumgartner (both of Speed the Plough) all wrote songs for the band’s debut album, Sparks Like Little Stars.
“Just yesterday, Matt and I were trying to name an album where four different songwriters contribute two (or more) songs each,” said Seifert. “I guess Déjà Vu by CSNY is the only one I can think of.”
There is no dominant player in The Campfire Files. Engaging lyrics are supported by an intoxicating blend of sophisticated harmonies. All six members sing, accompanied by mandolin, keyboards, banjo, clarinet, recorder, flute, bass and a bunch of expressive guitars.
Everyone is a star on the Flies’ stage. It is refreshing to observe six talented musicians complement each other so successfully and with palpable ease.
“It’s a communal experience,” said Fried, Shoshkes’ husband and Cucumbers partner. “There’s just a different diffuse center of gravity. We leave space and room for each other.
“Every band I’ve been in has been a lot of fun, but this is different.”
According to John Baumgartner, who is credited with coming up with the album title (“I thought it rolled trippingly from the tongue,” he said), the band’s vibe and sounds are made possible by their collaborative spirit.
“There’s no trepidation about bringing a song to the party, which was always an issue for me back in the day,” he said. “But the Campfire Flies are all about realizing the best aspects of your song, finding things you didn’t know were there.”
The band launched the album March 31, with a record release show at Fox & Crow in Jersey City that drew a packed house.
“If Your Eyes Are Closed,” written by Seifert and featuring otherworldly flute by Toni Baumgartner (another Speed the Plough member, and John Baumgartner’s wife), is a catchy tune with a serious message to a reluctant love interest. When Seifert sang it at Fox & Crow, the band was all smiles; they really seem to enjoy playing with each other, and their enthusiasm was contagious.
Shoshkes’ “Way Way Back” has a gorgeous melody and soulful lyrics. She paints a beautiful picture when she sings, “Way, way back, in the back of the wagon/I lay down and looked up at the stars/I saw a big old dipper and a great big dragon/Lights in the lantern and fire in the jar.” When she repeated the line “way, way back, in the back of the wagon” at Fox & Crow, crowd members bobbed their heads and sang along.
Shoshkes’ sincere, upbeat voice and the bands’ many-layered harmonies remind me of The Roches. And her charismatic smile at Fox & Crow drew me into her story.
“Blue Fall Day,” written by Davis, is a moody, introspective song with Toni Baumgartner and Shoshkes’ rich vocals blending nicely with Davis’. He describes a world that is green on a blue fall day and references a person whose world is spinning in his head. Baumgartner lightens the mood with her recorder. At the end of the performance of this song at Fox & Crow, band members whispered, “All the world’s gone away on a blue fall day” and it was silent in the bar. After the last note, someone in the crowd broke the silence and sighed, “Wow!”
John Baumgartner’s “Deep Water” is sweet and dreamy. As the band members sang it at Fox & Crow, the harmonies were hypnotic and felt like a cascading waterfall, accompanied by Baumgartner’s keyboards. Once again, they smiled as they sang, enjoying each other’s contributions.
Campfire Flies members have, in some cases, known each other for decades. “Jon and I and John and Toni have had nearly parallel lives, musically,” said Shoshkes. “We started out at about the same time. One of our first big NYC shows was at the legendary club Danceteria. The Cucumbers were on a bill with The Trypes, which was a band (the Baumgartners) were in.
“Our circles overlapped, but we didn’t really get to know each other well until we met again, about 10 years ago, through the Saturday Afternoon Song Swap. We met Matt and Ed through the Song Swap, as well.”
Shoshkes and singer-songwriter Rebecca Turner developed the Song Swap as a monthly gathering for songwriters; it has had various New Jersey locations over the last decade. Song Swap recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with “a big, communal concert and a compilation album,” said Shoshkes. “We’ve met so many wonderful people through the Swap and also introduced local bands to our friends at Rent Party. Chris Dickson (from Rent Party) has come ‘scouting’ to a lot of swaps.”
Band members have worked in various fields over the years, including teaching, graphic design and video, but remain committed to developing the Flies.
“We’ve all got lots of songs in the pipeline and can’t wait to arrange them and add them into our set,” said Shoshkes. “Fried is making videos for all of the tracks on Sparks Like Little Stars … I am so excited and proud of the album … when you have songs you love, you have to take them and bring them out into the world.”
The Campfire Flies will perform at The Westfield Music Festival, July 9, and return to Fox & Crow on Sept. 14. Visit thecampfireflies.com.
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