A sound all their own

Fred & the Eds perform at the Paddock Club, Watertown, while the crowd dances on a recent Friday night. The band has been playing for nearly 20 years. Amanda Morrison/ NNY Living

Fred & the Eds perform at the Paddock Club, Watertown, while the crowd dances on a recent Friday night. The band has been playing for nearly 20 years. Amanda Morrison/ NNY Living

North country favorite Fred & the Eds stands test of time

Disco might suck, to use the expression in vogue in the early 1970s when rock and rollers began to feel their genre was being infiltrated by a less pure form of music, but seven-piece rock bands that just want to play songs that keep people dancing all night long most certainly don’t.

At least not in the north country, where local favorite Fred & the Eds has made a name for itself on the dance floor and through its unique story over the past 16 years.

As most locals know, the “Eds” in the band’s name doesn’t stand for a member’s name, but for educators; the band’s original members were all teachers at Indian River School District who got together to play at a talent show to teach students a thing or two about real rock and roll. Frederick H. “Fred” Lanham, who is one of three original members still in the band’s seven-member lineup today (it’s had 29 different members since forming in 1996), was the token non-teacher in the group.

“It was supposed to just be a one night thing and it turned into 16 years,” Mr. Lanham said on a recent Friday night while preparing for a performance at the Paddock Club, a Watertown venue the group frequents, transforming the bar’s static armchair and table setup into a pulsating, blinking, vibrant dance floor.

He adds with a laugh: “I’m still the uneducated one.”

From its inception, Fred & the Eds, or FATE, wanted to be a dance band, according to Mr. Lanham, who is a retired police officer and has been playing guitar since he was 11 when he moved to a new neighborhood and “had to play it if I wanted to fit in.” He also plays harmonica, mandolin and banjo in the band, and sings lead vocals.

“There are songs I don’t like, but they get people on the dance floor,” he said. “If the song doesn’t get the right reaction, we drop it in a heartbeat.”

Dance music makes the night go by faster for its members as well.

“It makes us feel accomplished—like our ideas are working, our song selection is working. It gives us the confidence to keep going,” he said.

FATE has about 80 songs in its repertoire, but has learned more than 300 in its impressive run, primarily music from the 60s and 70s, with a little 80s and 90s, Mr. Lanham said. The band typically practices a few times per month and as often as two to three times per week when it has upcoming gigs. It usually plays around 44 gigs a year, including about four to five weddings, though this summer it played seven times in 10 days, and it’s booked for the next three New Years straight, a demand the band attributes to its focus on dance music.

“Our secret is that [other bands] play what they want. We play dance music,” said bass player Michel D. Rainville, a retired TV producer who joined the band in February, 2009.

Such a focus on fun dance music seems in some ways like an odd juxtaposition for teachers — all current members except Mr. Lanham have some tie to academia—but the band members shrug off questions about how their professions impact their playing; it’s no longer an explicit part of the band’s identity, but more a quirky anecdote about its beginnings.

“Once you get in with a bunch of people with the same interests in music, you forget about their other occupations,” Mr. Lanham said. “You’re part of a crew.”
J. Thomas Murray, who plays drums and percussion and sings lead vocals, is another original member who still teaches art, photography and computer graphics at Jefferson Community College. He was chairman of the art department at Indian River schools, where he worked down the hall from current trombone player Jim Oxenford, and also taught at SUNY Empire State College.

“Educators tend to be good at communicating, which is important because you need to be able to talk to each other,” he said of the impact of the teaching profession on the band.

Teachers also tend to be good at compartmentalizing, which he said is important in their band. With families and other commitments, band members have their own specialties and areas of responsibility: Mr. Rainville does the books, Mr. Lanham is the music historian and choses most of the band’s music (“If it gets by Fred we’ll probably play it,” Mr. Murray says), Mr. Oxenford is the music director, making play lists for every concert and saxophone player Shannon M. Whitney is the social chair.

Mr. Oxenford, also an original member, is an English teacher at Indian River, while Ms. Whitney, of Adams Center, was previously a special education teacher at Indian River and is now a special education administrator at Watertown School District. Jeffrey A. Wood, trumpet and percussion, was born in Alexandria Bay. He previously taught computer networking at JCC and now works in information technology. Steve Martin, lead guitar, keyboards, percussion and vocals, a graduate of SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music and a music teacher at Indian River, completes the band’s lineup.

Ms. Whitney joined the band in 1999 after Mr. Oxenford’s wife told her about the musicians and she attended a Tuesday night rehearsal. One rehearsal was all it took to hook her, despite a busy schedule with family and competitive horse showing nationwide.

She’s one of only a few women to play with the the band, including bass player Christine Bach who left at the end of 2008 after several years with the group.

Ms. Whitney said she loves the camaraderie of FATE, as well as seeing people dancing and having a great time.

“The core group of guys, they just love every piece. They’re fun to be around,” she said. “It’s almost like a second family.”

Her love for the group has also impassioned her son, Seth, who is 8 years old and has been taking guitar lessons for two years. He “absolutely loves the band,” she said, listening to their music and trailing her to every gig not held in a bar and religiously attends Tuesday night rehearsals.

Despite the fact that many of the members are retired, they have no plans to stop playing and have managed to bounce back from member losses and sickness in remarkable fashion, in 16 years only ever cancelling two shows: Once when Mr. Lanham was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He was playing again in just three weeks.

“I do believe we have a lot of time to play,” Mr. Lanham said. “There’s so much resiliency in this band.”

Though FATE currently practices in Mr. Murray’s cellar in Brownville, they once for a time rehearsed in a milk barn in Chaumont, where the heat was “like a volcano,” resulting in frigid instruments closer to the floor.

Neither do any of FATE’s members do it for the fame — all say that you join a seven-piece band with the knowledge that you’re not doing it for the money and while they could travel to perform in a larger geographic radius for gigs and have been invited to do so, they’re content with what they make here in their north country home. And with all the obstacles and familial sacrifices, more than the fulfillment of seeing people get on the dance floor and have a good time, the members agree that the band is a way to keep up their own spirits, through friendship and laughter.

“The only reason I do this and I keep doing this is because I laugh all the time,” Mr. Murray said. “We just rag at each other constantly. We laugh all the time.”

Leah Buletti is a staff writer for NNY Magazines. Contact her at 661-2381 or lbuletti@wdt.net.