Local bands come and go, but there are always those few that make such a lasting impression, that burned so hot and so bright in their heyday, that they are remembered and talked about long after they're gone. Case in point: Beanstalk, an instrumental, funk/jazz/jam trio that peaked in Tampa nearly a decade ago and is still the standard against which subsequent local jam outfits are measured.
Unfortunately, Beanstalk took on too much too fast and burned out after less than four years together.
Beanstalk grew from some casual jam sessions in 1997 between three talented Tampa musicians -- drummer Aaron Kant, guitarist Joel Lisi and bassist Andy Irvine. The trio culled from jazz, funk, soul, blues and rock 'n' roll; the grooves were so good that soon enough they were working up material by Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and others to play live. During one session, Lisi idly fingered the vocal melodies to a tune they were learning, and Irvine and Kant realized the group didn't need a singer, that Lisi could manage all the lyric parts and still convey the feeling.
"That's where the Beanstalk sound was born," Irvine told me last week when we met to discuss the past, present and future of the band.
Beanstalk's first regular gig was Sunday nights at The Irish Pub, where they played their distinctive instrumental covers and used the laid-back stage time to expand upon their sound and write original music. By the time the trio had recorded and self-released their debut CD, Synergy, they were playing several nights a week at various area venues and had built up a core group of loyal followers.
"I started thinking, 'Well, we have an album and it's all originals -- we should start touring,'" Irvine said. So they did. After Kant left the band and went to New York City in 1998, virtuoso drummer/bassist Billy Carr took his place. The touring continued in earnest, and the band quickly broadened its reach from Florida into the Southeast and beyond, playing cities up and down the East Coast, nurturing a small national fanbase. They put out three albums -- Trading Paint, Live at Magnolia Fest, and Playground (a two-CD set) -- and built cred with peers and media alike, including the then-burgeoning jamcentric online music site, jambase.com.
When Beanstalk performed locally, they were able to make ends meet. But it was a different story when they were on the road. The guys were breaking new markets, so the money wasn't nearly as good. And because they didn't have tour support (no manager, no label, no financial backing other than well-meaning family members), any otherwise manageable expense -- say, a blown engine -- would set them back considerably.
"The road has a way of really beating you down," says Irvine of Beanstalk's run from 1999 to 2000. The increasingly busy touring schedule included upwards of 250 shows a year, and the tremendous strain of the road and Irvine's own battles with substance abuse ultimately led to Beanstalk's demise in late 2000. "I left the band because I personally needed a spiritual overhaul," he said. "I was burnt out to the point where I wasn't any good to anybody, and I wasn't any good to myself."
So Irvine dropped off the radar and moved to Colorado to start over, leaving his two bandmates behind.
Over the next nine years, Lisi, Carr and Irvine honed their talents separately, growing as musicians and as individuals. Lisi recorded in the Middle East and played with various well-regarded Bay area bands, including experimental jazz quartet Ghetto Love Sugar. Carr threw his chips in with beloved local swing act Lounge Cat, and more recently with the Jim Morey Band as its one-man rhythm section. (Carr can play drums and bass simultaneously, and does it well.) Irvine kept himself busy in Colorado, teaching bass to aspiring musicians, heading up a few bands and eventually joining On The One with drummer John Staten (Karl Denson's Tiny Universe). He played full time with the funk-soul quartet for the next several years, but as time passed, Irvine's thoughts kept returning to Beanstalk: "My heart was telling me I needed to make amends with those guys. Initially, it wasn't about getting Beanstalk back together, but about healing a friendship," Irvine said about making contact with Lisi.
After dispensing with the apologies, playing together came naturally, though the band is still working on the healing part. "It's a process," Irvine said. "You can talk and you can hug and you can work through things off the stage, and that's one thing. But the magic is when we'll have our instruments in our hands and we'll be playing the songs that we created together and that's when it will all come to fruition, when the whole healing process will take place."
Irvine is definitely optimistic. "We've managed to let all the crapola drift into obscurity and to remember the good times. Where it goes -- we don't know. It's the first time we've played together in eight years. But everybody's real excited about it."
Irvine says that this time around the band will take baby steps. They plan to tour again, but in fewer markets. And they'll make sure to always be writing new music. "New music is what keeps the musicians enthusiastic about playing it," the bassist said.
Beanstalk already has some new songs in the works, but will be grabbing from their back catalog at the Old School Tampa Reunion Party and Concert. Irvine put the multi-band show together after setting a date for Beanstalk's own reunion gig at Skipper's.
Since he was still in contact with most of his old music-scene friends, Irvine started making phone calls and extending invitations. My Little Trotsky's keyboardist Cory Holt (who'd performed with Irvine in Clang) and bassist Karen Collins (formerly of Monday Mornings) were obvious choices. "Cory and Karen were the two princesses of the scene in the '90s," he said. Irvine also brought on Maggie Council, who used to bring groceries to him when he was a struggling musician, and Joe Popp, "one of the guys at the forefront of the scene" who'd collaborated with Beanstalk on a few shows.
Irvine says the list of bands he wanted to invite to play the Old School Reunion was long, so long that he is already looking to the future. "Who knows?" he said. "We might make it an annual thing."
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