Essay by Walter Crockett
1972. The fans are 19, 20, 21 years old. Second half of the Baby Boom generation poured into a working man's roadhouse, the Blue Plate Lounge, in Holden, Massachusetts. Long-hairs and short-hairs, nurses and painters, grad students and weed-dealers packed 200-tight in a room built for maybe 70.
Standing on tables, dancing in place, rocking the foundations and bouncing the dance floor like a trampoline, as the trio on stage plays songs no one outside of Worcester County has ever heard.
Magical songs, with three-part harmonies. Just a pounding electric piano and a strummed acoustic guitar, and maybe a tambourine, laying down this mongrel cross of folk, country, blues, rock, pop. Gorgeous, bouncy, dark and joyous songs of love won and lost, green river rushes, moonlit nights, the month of May sleeping in my bones, and a place somewhere over the rainbow that never seemed more real, more here, more now. Marvelous harmonies that flow together without calculation, like water to a mountain stream, and this amazing young woman who makes every song her own whether she sings lead or background, riffing like a bluebird over the strong male voices, frisking like a colt in April, aching, just like a woman, to run free, to be free, to love.
It was eighteen years since the river of rock 'n' roll tumbled headlong into the river of time. Sixteen years after Elvis released "Hound Dog." Nine years after JFK went down. Eight years since the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show. Just three years after man walked on the Moon, and only months before the drinking age would drop to 18 in Massachusetts.
It was the most prosperous time in American history. You could drop out of college and get a job, go back to college and get an education. Stay up half of Monday night dancing to Zonkaraz and sleep-walk through work the next day. You could catch the Celtics at the Garden for $10 bucks on the day of the game. See Hendrix or the Dead at Clark University for less.
Music had exploded as the generations changed. There were live rock 'n' roll bands everywhere, playing for real money three, four, five, six nights a week. There was rock, folk-rock, country-rock, blues-rock and schlock-rock and you could hear it all on the same radio station. This generation shared a common musical vocabulary, they had money to spend, beer to drink, brain cells to burn and their whole lives in front of them.
Worcester, where Zonkaraz was born and rose to local fame, is often called a "gritty industrial city" because people are too polite to call it plain ugly. But Worcester is above all a melting pot, a cauldron of ethnicity on gray streets just minutes from the wooded hills of Central Massachusetts. Out of this cauldron came Zonkaraz, a group that melded the city's already dissolving ethnic and religious divisions: Ric Porter, son of Jewish parents, loved to fish and hunt, never finished high school, lived in a teepee in the woods. Paul Vuona, son of Italian-American parents, graduated from University of Miami in fine arts, worked in construction. Joanne Barnard, old-line Anglo-Saxon, dabbled in college but she was born to sing.
Vuona, on piano, was the musician of the trio, and became the godfather in the years when the band grew large. He combined a flair for wistfully romantic songs with a pulsing, no-prisoners boogie-woogie style. In the early days he'd handle the bass lines with his left hand, and drive the melody home with his right, pumping out solo after solo for the dancing crowd. The buoyant "Morning Sunrise" and "Chico Chico (A Cuban Love Song)," are among his tunes.
Porter, the band's most prolific songwriter, brought a rocking blues influenceand a folk-country sound to the group, with classics like "I've Been Thinking 'Bout You" and "East Virginia." And he was the master of writing hauntingly beautiful songs like "Moonshine Mama" and "Different Song." Porter brought the simplicity and sensitivity to his songs that he found in his love of the outdoors.
Barnard was a work of nature. Preternaturally sensual. Sexy just breathing. Gifted with a belting lower register, a silky, keening falsetto and vocal quality that would be distinctive on any stage. But the biggest gift of all was the emotion that filled her sound. This was no finely tuned and tinkered machine, this was a natural woman singing of love and heartache, hope and despair.
Vuona and Porter got together first, playing the London Towers lounge at Worcester Airport. They bonded right away. Each of them had a colorful, distinctive voice and each was writing great original tunes. They played some songs with Barnard at a wedding and she blew them away. The wedding led to a Blue Plate gig and suddenly Zonkaraz was rolling.
They exploded like no other local band. They wrote whatever songs came to mind, and many of them became instant classics. They needed a roadie, so they added high-school dropout Paul "Spider" Hanson. With moves like Mick Jagger, Spider took up the tambourine and maracas and spent the rest of the band's eight-year run doubling as rock star and roadie.
Within a few years they eased from a trio into a full band. They needed a bass player to hold the sound down and they lucked into Jon Webster, a monstrously melodic player who could sing any harmony and hit all of Barnard's notes in rehearsal. From the beginning, everybody was dancing to Zonkaraz, so the drummer was inevitable. Dennis Wright joined, along with second percussionist/roadie Mitch Sephlin. Walter Crockett followed on lead guitar in 1975. A year later, Wright and Barnard left and were replaced by Tom Grignon and Nancy Roche.
And the band kept growing. On Monday nights in 1977 they would draw 500 people to the Last Chance Saloon. That's more people than you could find in all the music clubs in Worcester put together on a Friday or Saturday night 10, 20, or 30 years later.
Crockett left in '79 and was replaced by Larry Preston. Roche left in '80 and was replaced by Kim Page. Not long after, the wave had crested, the drinking age rose back to 21, the Baby Boomers started families, the music scene fragmented into disco, heavy metal, and punk. The Zonkaraz era was over.
But the songs live on. These exceptional songs, these danceable, romantic songs are as compelling today as they were in 1972. And the players and singers haven't lost a lick either. Sometimes you can go home.
Editor's note: for the double DVD set memorializing the reunion concert at the Hanover Theatre, November 13, 2010, click here.
The Paxton Tapes The "Paxton Tapes" consist of several half-inch, four-track magnetic tapes recorded in the spare bedroom of a suburban ranch-style house in central Massachusetts, in 1972 and 1973, on an AMPEX 440 tape machine.
Gil Markle engineered these sessions, which were animated mainly by the original Zonkaraz musicians Paul Vuona, Ricky Porter, and Joanne Barnard. Many of these songs were recorded direct-to-stereo, mixed on the fly. If there's a hum anywhere, it's probably the dishwasher in the kitchen.
Remember the Night
Never Thought That I'd Be Sad
It's a Lovely Feeling
It's a Lovely Feeling Alternate version.
Jack Frost Signature by Mike Forhan.
Go With the Flow
I'll Be Thinking About You
Movin' Up Country
Tell Me How You Feel
California Album version, Nancy Roche, lead vocal, Bill Halverson, Prod.
California Extract of refrain, original version.
California Long View outtake, Joanne Barnard, lead vocal, Gil Markle, Prod.
California "First Night" reunion concert, December 31, 2006.
Playback requires a (free) RealOne Player.
Zonkaraz, 2006 "First Night" reunion concert, over thirty years later, of this central Massachusetts mega-band.
Streaming broadband only. Stereo. 45:51.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.