As a teenager, James Mastro gained a valuable education, but not in a classroom.
On an otherwise unremarkable day in 1978, the Roxbury native received a phone call from Richard Lloyd, the famed guitarist in Television, one of the seminal bands to emerge from the 1970s punk scene in New York. What transpired amounted to a life-changing moment for the 17-year-old — Lloyd asked him to play guitar on upcoming recording sessions for his first solo album.
“My brother and I and a couple of friends from high school had a band. We were playing places in New York, like CBGB and Max’s Kanas City,” says Mastro. “The label that released Television’s first record wanted to do a single with us and Richard wanted to produce it. That never happened, but six months later, he called me to play on his album. It was kind of like the right place, right time.”
The record failed to burn up the charts, but the experience convinced Mastro that he had a future in rock ‘n’ roll, and he never looked back.
After playing with Lloyd for another couple of years, Mastro joined The Bongos, a power pop band that helped define Hoboken as a key outpost in the 1980s indie music scene. That gig had a heady six years run, essentially shaping his formative years in the mercurial music business.
“Richard Lloyd was like my high school education,” says Mastro. “And The Bongos … I looked at that as a college.”
Big-time success, however, remained elusive. After The Bongos broke up, Mastro spent more than a decade trying to break through with a couple of his own bands. Those efforts petered out and, while he continued to play and record, Mastro opened a guitar shop – The Guitar Bar – in Hoboken.
“I turned a hobby into a business,” he says. “But I’m probably still my best customer. I own 40 guitars.”
Eventually, Mastro got a chance to put his education to good use. For the past 16 years, he has played guitar with Ian Hunter, the celebrated singer and songwriter whose initial successes came as the frontman for Mott the Hoople, one of the hottest 1970s rock bands. Hunter and his Rant Band, including Mastro, will perform at Montclair’s Outpost in the Burbs concert series, Nov. 17, supporting Hunter’s most recent album, Fingers Crossed, which was released last year.
Mastro now occupies a role once held by Hunter’s former musical partners – Mick Ralphs, who played with Hunter in Mott the Hoople, and the late Mick Ronson, a former David Bowie foil who teamed with Hunter on a few widely revered albums nearly 40 years ago.
How did this gig come about?
Once again, serendipity intervened. A friend had put together a benefit show where Hunter showed up to play, which prompted the aging rock star to consider forming a band and rejuvenating his career.
“So my friend told he was working with Ian and I said that ‘I gotta be in this band,’ ” says Mastro. “Mott the Hoople was the reason I started playing guitar. But my friend was the guitarist and Ian said he didn’t need another one. I was totally bummed. I called my friend back, though, and said you’ll need a mandolin for ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother,’ ” a ballad and fan favorite from a Mott album released in 1973.
“I stayed up all night and learned that one song. And then I went to rehearsal and played on a few more songs and it just went from there. And when Ian wanted to pull a band together, I was in. And it was like full circle for me.”
As a member of Hunter’s band, Mastro has toured regularly and performed on a half-dozen well-received albums that have helped secure the 78-year-old Hunter’s legacy as rock ‘n’ roll legend.
“This is not an oldies show. He does it because it’s what he likes to do — hanging with the boys in the band. He doesn’t need the money,” says Mastro, who has noticed the crowds seem to be getting younger. “Ian’s just great to be around and he’s writing better songs all the time.”
Indeed, five years ago, Hunter recorded “When I’m President,” a full-throated promise to rework the country that seemed to capture a sentiment that has only intensified in the following years: “I’m going to lean on the 1 percent, when I’m President/No more bargains in the basement.”
Hunter, in fact, remains more than capable of churning out pithy observations and stark insights on the steady stream of albums he has released in recent years. But the sound achieved on those records is due, in part, to the key role that Mastro plays.
“I just feel fortunate that I get to do what I love, be it my shop or going on tour with Ian,” he says. “I wouldn’t have thought this was possible when I was 17.”
For information on the Outpost in the Burbs show, visit outpostintheburbs.org.