Finding a silver lining during 2020 hasn't been easy for most people. But if it wasn’t for the pandemic, the Mad Dog Blues Experience blues band wouldn’t have had the opportunity to complete its double album, Family Reunion 2020, or have its release party at Dazzle on October 15.
Mark “Mad Dog” Friedman — harmonica player, artist, poet and bandleader — had planned to tour in 2020. On the road, he would commemorate the night he earned his nickname — a night of drinking too much MD 20/20 wine and howling at the moon in college.
But then the pandemic hit.
He had planned to use gig money from the tour to produce a new album; instead, he applied for several COVID-19 musician relief grants in hopes of gaining some lost revenue. Joe Bonamassa’s Relief Program for Musicians, through Keeping the Blues Alive, gave Friedman $1,000.
“This was enough money to fund a high-quality, do-it-yourself recording project,” he says. “It will pay for the printing of CDs, the studio rental and the mastering.”
The album was recorded in four days at Dog House Music Studios in Lafayette with a "live-in-the-studio sound."
“We recorded an average of six songs a day,” Friedman explains. “We recorded one to five takes live with the full band for each song and then picked our favorite versions.”
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Jenn Cleary, who has played music with Friedman for fourteen years and heads up the Jenn Cleary Band, contributes vocals and guitar on the album.
“I love how Mad Dog invited all these musicians to come together and be creative together,” Cleary says. “He had an image of what he wanted overall, and had certain songs that he thought each musician could be featured on. Yet he included everyone in the process and stayed fluid and open for ideas and changes.”
Family Reunion 2020 was an opportunity to gather all the members of the Mad Dog Blues Experience under one roof. It also symbolizes a welcome-home party for one of the musicians, Sean Bennight, who had been stuck in Kansas after being arrested. He wrote a tongue-in-cheek ragtime blues song out of the experience called “Hangman” for the album.
“I wrote the song ‘Hangman’ a few years ago after getting pulled over by the Kansas Highway Patrol,” Bennight recalls. “A year and a half ago, I got pulled over again. This time, there were steeper consequences.
“The moral of the story: Don’t miss court dates, and don’t waste time with public defenders,” Bennight continues. “I was offered the opportunity to become a full resident of the county I failed to appear in. So here I am in Kansas for the last year, and the song takes on a whole new meaning.”
Bennight plays guitar and mandolin on Family Reunion 2020.
“It’s important to recognize when you’re blessed with an opportunity and playing with musicians of this caliber,” Bennight says. “Especially, a walking blues history lesson like Mad Dog is incredible.”
Big Willy Palmer, who plays guitar and offers some vocals on the album, taught himself how to play guitar at age forty. When Friedman was looking for a guitar player to fill in for a gig in October 2019, Big Willy jumped at the chance. He says Family Reunion 2020 was his first time in the studio.
“[It was] my first recording experience, and it was awesome to go through the process,” Big Willy says. “Working on songs until they’re just right can get mundane for some people. It's work, but it’s a labor of love.”
The band had around fifty summer shows lined up that were canceled because of COVID-19. But they were able to perform live streams from several venues throughout Colorado, such as the Mercury Cafe, Last Stand Tavern, the Foundry, Broken Plow Brewery and more via the band's YouTube channel.
“Around the beginning of June, we started playing outdoor shows, private parties, a few clubs and whatever seemed safe for us and our fans,” Friedman says. “So we continue to do live streams and post videos, as they are an incredibly effective means of engaging new fans. Our last live stream with Radio Cave had over 10,000 views in less than a week.”
The band's goal with the album is to build community and juxtapose high-key energy with relaxation.
“Much of the music is serious, but we do not take ourselves too seriously,” Friedman says. “It’s all about connecting with people. We hope to get you where you live and share some personal and universal truths in an enjoyable format.”
Big Willy hopes his music connects with listeners as well as serves as a stress reliever.
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“Music connects us to our emotions in a way that nothing else can,” Big Willy says. “Music helps us deal with the stresses of life in a good way. I want people to be connected to emotions without being overwhelmed.”
Cleary wants her love of music and unifying others to shine each time people hear or witness her perform.
“I play music not to become rich or famous,” she says, “but to enjoy the dynamic of making music, sharing with others, and the community that has formed around it, and that’s a good thing!”