Brian Gabriel wasn’t looking to form a band. He just wanted to make an album.
And so he did. Playing all the instruments and doing all the vocals — with a few exceptions — the life-long musician put together a 10-track album he recorded over the course of a year at Suffolk Recording Studios, which he manages in Patchogue Village.
Calling the “group,” A’Mericana and the album Salvation Unkind, Gabriel released the record on Tuesday, Oct. 17.
The responses were overwhelmingly positive, he said.
From one friend in particular.
“A music comrade of mine, Doug O’Dell, who’s now playing bass, was saying, ‘You have to put a band together; people need to hear this live,’” he said.
Gabriel still wasn’t sold on the idea. “It just wasn’t the scope of what I had envisioned for the project,” he said.
But nature found a way.
Fast-forward a bit, the five-member A’Mericana started rehearsing in March.
The first time they ever played in front of a live audience was on a Wednesday night, May 18, at Bobbique on West Main Street in Patchogue Village.
This wasn’t an ordinary night, though. It was the first round of the first-ever Rock the Patch battle of the bands to see which one of 16 acts would punch a ticket to play at Alive After Five, which has become one of the more coveted gigs among Long Island musicians.
A’Mericana won that night at Bobbique, proving to be the best of four bands in the eyes of three judges.
That meant they would be playing the following week for the contest’s finals at 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue. This would be the group’s second time performing live.
A’Mericana won again.
One of the judges, Christopher Capobianco, who runs the Live in the Lobby original music series at Patchogue Theatre, said A’Mericana quickly emerged as a clear winner as the scoring numbers were being tallied.
“They came out with a totally professional set, and it was a notch above the rest,” he said.
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Letting Gabriel and his team compete in Rock the Patch wasn’t exactly like inviting Kevin McCale of the Boston Celtics to play in the Cheers Vs. Gary’s Old Towne Tavern charity game, but this was not the band members’ first rodeo — even if A’Merica had just formed.
A professional musician who’s been on some big bills and opened for names like Cheap Trick with several different acts over the years, Gabriel was signed to a major label with a band he played drums for while living in North Jersey in the mid-1990s.
That group, a rock pop group called The Cheese, released an album in 1996 through MCA/Curb Records and toured for a year with big names at the time, like Wilco and Gov’t Mule.
But the experience of spending long, exhausting hours in the studio — and, best of all, the end result of a CD wrapped in cellophane and everything contained therein — left a lasting impression on Gabriel.
It was a treasured time in his life that fueled his desire to do it all over again, even if he was playing by himself this time around.
“The concept of the album was to put together music you could listen to in one sitting, like the way people used to do,” said Gabriel, who’s 47. “You would listen from Song 1 and then flip sides and listen to the whole rest of the record.”
“I wrote 10 songs with this record, and I’m multi-faceted with all instruments so I did the recording myself,” he continued. “It was all born out of a concept. More or less, this whole album amounts to my timeline on earth. So it was a very cathartic experience for me.”
At O’Dell’s urging, Gabriel started to put the band’s pieces together, recruiting friends and contacts for the assemblage of A’Mericana, the actual band.
All the members are professional musicians with decades in the music industry between them:
Brian Gabriel – guitar/vocals
Doug O’Dell – bass/vocals
Sean McGrath – guitar
Anthony Pravata – guitar
Jim Mansfield – drums
The newly formed band only rehearsed a handful of times before the first Rock the Patch night at Bobbique.
“We put the band together, and kind of from that first rehearsal, it sounded really good,” he said. “We’re all working musicians to we rehearsed maybe a handful of times, on and off.
“Then the contest came up.”
By far the most frequent request the Alive After Five organizers get comes from bands looking to play on the street during the summer’s four festivals.
The Greater Patchogue Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, David Kennedy, has a form letter he uses to respond to such requests. The letter explains that the musical acts are booked through the restaurants, which share the separate stages along Main Street.
But a lot of the bands that do perform at Alive After Five are the same every year.
“I love the bands that come to Alive After Five,” Kennedy said this winter, before the contest got underway, “but the restaurants do seem to be very loyal to the bands which they have relationships with, so you see many of the same come back. Since this is such a demand, I would like to see a few others get the opportunity.”
“Most importantly,” he had added, “I want these bands that are contacting us to feel like they’re getting a fair shot.”
“I’ve been around Alive After Five since it started,” Capobianco said. “I was very happy that they came up with this way of getting some new bands involved, because it has started to feel like a closed shop, so to speak. I hope they keep it going and that it’s used as another opportunity for local bands to showcase original music.”
A’Mericana will play July 7 at the season’s first of four Alive After Five events in Patchogue Village: The Blue Point Stage next to the Bargain Bilge.
Gabriel named the group A’Mericana because the sound incorporates so many aspects of the country’s music landscape: rock, funk, blue grass, roots music, and more.
The sound’s tasting notes include hints of classic acts as varied as the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to 1990s alternative rock bands like the Lemonheads, Alice in Chains, maybe even Spacehog.
All that sensory overload for music fans is what makes the album so downright special.
(These are our own very subjective observations, not Gabriel’s words.)
“I had the tenacity to name the group after a whole genre,” Gabriel said. “Because this is just a big amalgamation of everything that’s been shoved down my cranium, starting as a little kid and hearing The Beatles, Stones, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Byrds, Bob Dylan …
“It’s a reflection of everything in this big f—cking melting pot we call a country.”
Of course what’s different about the actual band that won Rock the Patch — as opposed to the studio album — is that it’s five different people playing those instruments, not just one.
“Each guy is going to add his element of human-ness,” Gabriel said. “So it’s got that aspect to it. I give a little rope, but these guys are so good, a good musician can mimic but still put his soul into it and own it. Even though it sounds like me, it’s him playing. The way a guy bends a note or slides into a cord, is going to be different than the way I’m doing it. But because they bought into my concept, it’s like they do have ownership. That’s what makes the band sound so good.”
“Music is truth and truth is found in music,” he said. “Especially when it’s being delivered by the guy who writes it.
“This is my truth. It’s the most honest I can be.”
Touching again on the 1990s nostalgia, Gabriel is especially excited his album comes in the form of a CD wrapped tightly in cellophane.
And that cellophane is as hard to scratch open as you remember.
Top: Brain Gabriel at Suffolk Recording Studios, where he cut Salvation Unkind. (Michael White)