Names & Games | My Secret Boston Article
Names and Games
Richard James establishes a solid indentity.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Photo: Jennaration Photography
There are a lot of ways for bands to connect with their fans these days. Richard James and the Name Changers, a six-piece group out of the North Shore, takes it one step further than just the typical Facebook and web presence. If you go to one of the band’s bigger shows (which are happening more regularly of late) they will provide you with a “Hello My Name Is” sticker and invite you to change your name for the night. A fun trick, yeah, but it’s a brilliant way to get everyone involved. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Just ask Coco Butter, one of the many fans who regularly attend Name Changers shows with the same name tags, just further proof that creating a positive experience for the crowd goes beyond playing your instruments.
“The more we get people involved, the better the energy will be. It’s important: Without the fans, where are you going to be?” says lead singer and keys player Rick Umlah.
The band participates in the name game, too. At certain shows the members pick a theme and wear different shirts with names on them. They’ll leave it to the crowd to guess the theme. For the band’s headlining show last month at the Middle East Upstairs, they went with Johnny Depp characters. Umlah was Duke. (Who can name the movie?) At another show, the theme was towns in Massachusetts that are actual first names. They even split up “Billerica” by having the two-piece horn section stand next to each other wearing “Bill” and “Erica.” Now try guessing the other names.
“So what are you going with on Thursday [tomorrow, April 14] at Church?” I ask. The band will be playing in the middle slot (9:15 to 10:15 p.m.) for MySecretBoston’s new music series, “Secret Sessions,” along with openers Otis Grove and headliners the Nephrok! Allstars. Tickets are available here.
“We actually haven’t decided yet. It’s a work in progress. We could always play on the whole Church theme. What do you think? Any ideas?” Umlah says. I wasn’t expecting to be put on the spot like that, but I did suggest something that might very well turn out to be the theme. You’ll have to wait and see.
All of this would be meaningless if the band didn’t have the music to back it up. Richard James and the Name Changers have that more than covered. Every show is its own life force, with a diverse and carefully crafted batch of originals endlessly flowing through witty cover selections (much like that band that changed the name of that animal that swims in the sea). It’s a jam band in certain places, but a psychedelic, funk-laden rock experience all around the edges. They even have a shot at playing this year’s Bonnaroo Music Festival by way of a fan poll powered by Sonic Bids. The top eight-ranked bands get slots at this year’s festival. Richard James and the Name Changers are in 74th place as I write this sentence. Not bad, considering there are 700 bands in the running. To cast your vote, check out the contest page and download one of Richard James’s songs.
No two shows are alike for this band. What evolved out of a drum and keys duo much like the real Duo (Benevento/Russo) gained steam by adding more arms and legs. The current six-strong grouping, complete with a pair of horns, is locked and loaded with a deep bag of tricks—Zappa, Floyd, and even touches of the Ben Folds Five get their moments. There’s a lot of room to run in this group.
”We can bring you up, bring you down, and take you places you probably weren’t going to expect,” Umlah says.
The Name Changers are known to cover everything from “Shakedown Street” to “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” always shaping each piece into something that’s purely their own. The latter tune, an old-school hip-hop number from Ina Kamoze (trust me, you’ve definitely heard this song), flies through the Name Changers universe more like a James Brown funk tune than a ’90s hip-hop staple. The band chose to cover this song by soliciting suggestions from fans on Facebook. It promised to play the 100th wall post during a recent show at Sugarloaf, which turned out to be “Hotstepper.” The tune felt so right for the band that it will still bust it out on occasion. Thursday, perhaps? The best thing about this band is you never know what to expect.
Umlah and his band are based out of the North Shore, a growing community for music and the arts. Some of Boston’s best talent has moved up the coast in favor of the cleaner air. This setting has proven to be a solid home base for the band.
“We are able to try out a lot of new stuff on the North Shore. We can play three nights in row, one in Gloucester, one in Salem, and one in Beverly, and have three different crowds. There are some serious music fanatics that go out every night around here, plus there’s no better place to be in the summer. The musicianship is top notch, too. Guys like Tim Pike, Mike Miksis, Benny Benson, and the Aruda Brothers all live up here.”
With all that talent surrounding them, Richard James and the Name Changers fit right in. Umlah especially gets around. Lucky for us living in Boston, the band will leave behind the North Shore tomorrow (Thursday) to steal some faces and change some names at Church during Secret Sessions. Otis Grove and the Nephrok! Allstars will also throw in some serious punches.