Joe D'Urso

CD Review: Both Sides of Life

It's been quiet a couple of years for Joe D'Urso. Rockland's favorite son has traveled the world as the house band for the Harley Davidson 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour, performing for millions of people. His last album, "rock and roll station", was a critical success that added a new depth to his music. To top it off, Joe and his lovely wife celebrated the birth of their son Guthrie, assuring that the love of rock and roll music will last at least one more generation.

D'Urso's life and career have achieved a balance that is difficult for anyone to achieve, and even more so for one living the hectic life of a rock and roller on the road. All of the success and accomplishment, balanced with a solid grounding of family and a love of making music, manifests itself in D'Urso's latest album, his seventh, "Both Sides of Life".

"Both Sides of Life" is a two-CD effort. Disc One is D'Urso along with his talented bandmates in Stone Caravan, drummer Sam LaMonica, guitarist Greg Lykins and bassist Lou DeMartino celebrating eleven electrical rockers. Disc Two reveals the other side of D'Urso's music, twelve reflective and emotional acoustic tracks that manage to wear their heart on their sleeve without coming across as sappy or overbearing. Even when alone with a single guitar, the music still sports a rock soul.

Released by SCR/Schoolhouse Records, "Both Sides of Life" has numerous high points that should invigorate long-time fans, as well as those who have discovered Stone Caravan over the past two years. A cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands", sporting a dream horn section of Mark Pender, Richie LaBamba and Jerry Vivino fits perfectly into the overall vibe of disc one, while the acoustic side has enough tears in your beer sincerity that you'll be feeling the experiences as if they were your own.

Joe D'Urso gave Chorus and Verse insight in the creation of his latest effort, as well as other goings on in his past, present and future. We congratulate Joe on another successful album, as well as the impending birth of his second child.

Talk about the "Both Sides of Life" concept; how did the two-disc idea develop, at how have your thoughts about balance which you write about in the liner notes evolved over the past two years?

Balance is always a tough one and getting even more so as our music gets out there more. In the next few weeks we will perform in 15 or 16 countries so my skills of balancing the road and a home life will be challenged!

The concept of the balance was an easy one as it's something always on my mind and by being a songwriter that performs in both a solo and band offering it seemed only natural to present a double CD with the electric and acoustic sides of my writing.

This marks the second album in a row that could be described as a "concept" piece. Is this a coincidence, or are you actively trying to stretch yourself creatively with these releases? Are albums more fun to record and produce when there is an overall vision that you're trying to achieve, rather than just collecting a series of songs on tape?

I try not to think about the "concept" idea, but I guess by trying to offer up something a little different for the public I tend to fall into the "concept" realm. To me the word "concept" brings to mind Pink Floyd, The Who, Yes and tons of other great artists whereas I'm just trying to take a simple art form like singer-songwriter/rock and roll and explore it to my best potential.

I think by having an idea of what you are trying to conceive does make the process of collecting sounds a bit easier, but I don't ever want to get bogged down thinking I need a "concept" to write and release records. It just happens that the last two releases have been somewhat more cohesive.

Does writing and performing both reflective acoustic music, as well as straight-ahead rockers, help keep everything fresh and interesting for you? You comment on the album about how you're amazed at having recorded seven albums in eleven years. Yet, after all that, it seems that you're finding more and more to write about. Is this due to new experiences that you're having, new inspirations, or have you just honed your songwriting skills over the years?

I think you nail it on the head in regard to the acoustic and the rockers. I never get tired of either one as I never get to "overdue" either one. It's really a great thing that my audience accepts both song forms from me. I think the writing is a combination of the experiences and the skills getting better. I know for certain that I write a lot less lyrically than I have in the past. I used to write notebooks and notebooks of lyrics in the past but luckily I now seem to be able to get to where I want to go in less words, which may be attributed to knowing one's self better and the skill getting sharper. But it also comes down to opening yourself up to the Muse; Accepting why words and music are coming to you and following that path even though at the moment you may not be quite sure where it is going.

Some of the material on "Both Sides" is recent, while other songs have been around for while. Can you give an example of some of the new songs, and where they were written and which tracks have been around for the longest time without being recorded previously?

The newer songs tended to be on the Acoustic CD though there are a few like "Power of the Dove" that have been around with me for quite a while. On the Electric CD songs like "Freezing Dreams" were lyrically written over 15 years ago when I was hanging out in Greenwich Village and didn't know how to play guitar! It's been a blast to see that one come to life and rediscover what I was feeling when I wrote it and to know that it still rings true. Also on "So Tired," those lyrics must be six to seven years old but the music is brand new. But something like "Be" on the acoustic side was written in the studio as the melody kept haunting me until David Domanich asked me if I wanted to lay it down, as I kept playing it on my guitar for two days in between every overdub.

Despite the strength of 22 tracks of original material, the album's going to get some notice for your cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands," especially since you've got a pretty cool horn section in LaBamba, Jerry Vivino and Mark Pender. Describe the mood in the studio when that track was being recorded, and how it was to work with those guys. Was that one of those times when you were listening to the playback and just knew that it was something special?

Working with those guys was just great. I had met LaBamba and Mark Pender in 1992 or 1993 when I was opening some dates for the Jukes on Southside's "Better Days" tour. I had gotten to know them better over the years, especially Mark who is just a real terrific guy. Needless to say, all three of them are just great, great musicians. I met Jerry that night and he is salt of the earth. They had just come from taping that evening's Conan O'Brien show and just were so cool and professional. I didn't have the horn part written at all. The band and I had the track done and told the guys what I was looking for; a ska like, reggae like, tropical drink feel! They looked at me and said OK, give us a few minutes and then went to work. Watching them communicate with each other was a real treat as they worked out all three parts fairly quickly and came up with this Specials meets Jukes feel. They doubled their parts then came in the studio and were real happy with the work they did. Needless to say myself, David Domanich and Michael Mazzarella, my co-producers, felt the same way and when I played the track for the band they thought it was way cool as well.

You've reprinted the lyrics for "Badlands" in the jacket, along with all of your own songs. It's unusual for artists to be able to print lyrics for covered songs. What did you need to do to get permission to publish them?

Not sure. I let my co-manager Bob Benjamin worry about that stuff! (Laughs.)

The songs you perform with Stone Caravan seem to be deal more with concepts, feelings and just ideas that you'd had from time to time, while the solo acoustic material seems to usually be inspired by one or two individuals. Do you find your thought process and inspiration is different when writing in one style rather than another, or does the theme of the song tend to affect how you want it to be performed?

I think the theme and type of song probably dictates how it will be presented. It certainly isn't pre-planned by any stretch of the imagination! I do my best not to think too much when I write. I just try and feel and if it feels good then I go with it. I think that the best songs make you feel a certain way and a lot of times those songs are very simple so I try not to "overthink" when writing.

I don't ever want it to lose that earthy, honest, natural feel.

You describe "Six Months in Italy" as the only song that ever made you cry while writing it. You included an Italian translation for the song in the liner notes, and clearly felt a great emotional attachment there. Can you describe what has moved you so much by your experience in Italy, and who were some of the people that have made it such a special part of the album?

The audience that we play for in Italy is just very, very special. They hang on every word you sing while performing. I think as an audience they really appreciate the work and energy that goes into putting on a show. I also think with my family's background being from Italy they look at me as a close relative. They also tend to be very emotional people. They wear it right on the sleeve and my music and lyrics tend to do the same thing.

I remember very clearly writing that song on the train in Italy on my way to Switzerland, and honestly I have no idea where it came from. It was one of the stream of consciousness songs that when I was done I reread a few times as it took me by surprise.

The album lists twelve performers, besides yourself, participating across the 23 tracks. Is it fun to be able to bring so many people together to take part in an artistic vision? Do you find music to be a social animal, where even solo acoustic material benefits from having friends around to participate? When you're alone in a room somewhere composing something new, do you immediately sense where the song can be helped by other contributions, or do those things evolve in the studio?

It is fun to make records. Now the word fun in this instance also means lots of hard work, worries, sweating and anything else you can think of. I've been fortunate as this was the third CD in a row where I have worked with Michael Mazzarella (The Rooks) and David Domanich (Ryan Adams, Lenny Kravitz). I trust these two guys very much and they also know me well enough to know when I really want something done a certain way. It's something that has grown out of us spending a lot of time at Jolly Roger Studios in Hoboken.

We laugh a lot and talk music and about this insane business and then try to never forget why we do what we do for a living. When I finish writing a song I bring it into my band, Stone Caravan, and then Sam LaMonica, Greg Lykins and Lou DeMartino then flush it out. Kind of like a little kid having a good foundation as a person but then getting very influenced by their talented and crazy uncles! I also usually know when I want to keep something very simple and when it should get that garage rock feel to it. Sam and I have been playing together for over eight years now and he is real good at knowing what I'm looking for sometimes even before I know!

Greg and Lou both bring distinctive personalities to the songs in their playing and in their knowledge of music. I've been quite lucky as it allows me to take a song I feel good about and after we get done with it as a band I like it even more.

With so much material to draw from, it is becoming more difficult to pick and choose which songs to include in your live sets? When you release two new albums of material, you obviously want to start playing it live, but that means removing fan-favorite songs from the set. Do you rotate the set list each evening, or are we going to be seeing four-hour JD&SC gigs soon?

Well, the shows have been getting longer and longer as most of the recent European dates went to two and a half hours except in cities where the building had strict curfews. It does get harder to choose songs especially since I never operate with a set list. Never have and hopefully never will. I just don't like being confined by them. I think every audience and show is different and I try to attack it that way. We all get on the stage and I usually tell the band the first two songs and from there it's a crap shoot. I yell out the next 20 or so songs and try to make the show interesting with peaks and valleys and the emotions that those peaks and valleys bring. I try and make sure most fan favorites are in there especially now that we hear people are driving hours and even flying to see some shows! I would hate for someone to go through that much work to see and hear us and not hear a song they love. Even in bigger venues now I will ask if anyone has a request. First one I hear, we play it.

What are your plans to support the album in 2003? You've already started touring Europe, where will that tour take you, and will you extend that into a series of shows in the United States?

We started this tour with four shows at The Turning Point in Rockland County, New York and then we left for three weeks in Europe. I now go down to Sydney, Australia for some shows then come back for the Jersey CD release show at The Saint on March 22. We then have the NYC CD release show on April 9 at The Cutting Room and then I head out to Tokyo, Japan for some shows. We may try to get up to Canada for some shows in April as well. Then we will spend May and June in Europe as we will be performing "aftershow concerts/parties" on the Bruce/E Street Band Stadium Tour. What will go on is that when they end at 11pm at the stadium, we will then start at midnight or so at a local music venue down the street and continue the party.

It should be a great time and will open our music up to a lot more people as that tour is hitting 13 countries including Germany and Spain where I haven't performed in yet. We are very thankful to all those involved for letting us do this. In the July we have the annual Summerfest in Milwaukee and hopefully some Jersey Shore shows. Then at the end of August we have the four-day Harley Davidson 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour Wrap Up Party in Wisconsin.

And it looks like I'm back in Europe come the fall. And somewhere in the early part of August my wife will give birth to our second child.

So that balance I spoke of earlier will really be tested!

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.