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Fast forward: 30 years later The Substance rocks again

The Substance 1980
The Substance in 1980 on Long Sands in York Beach, Maine. From left, Dave Whittle (original drummer), Chris Elliott, Greg Elliott, George Mason and Paul Chadwick.

By Nancy Cicco
Reprinted from SeacoastOnline: December 16, 2010

It's not a nostalgia trip. It's not a reunion tour. Don't call it a comeback. When The Substance takes the stage at Foobar in Portsmouth Friday, Dec. 17, it will be a reformation in the best sense of the word, marking the band's commitment to bring its bluesy, jazzy, punk-pop rock 'n' roll to the masses well beyond the Long Sands Beach bathhouse in York, Maine.

And the masses better be ready.

The boys sure are, in large part because they are no longer boys.

The Substance has been around 30 years, originally lighting up beach nightclubs, campgrounds and impromptu house parties in York in the early 1980s. In the summertime, on weekend nights at Bogart's (or at any 20-something's back yard), you'd find waitresses, prep cooks, busboys and chambermaids, students often on break from college, dancing to The Substance alongside York natives and summer residents who blew in "from away" every Memorial Day like kites in the azure beach sky. In those days, band members were Chris Elliott on vocals and trumpet; guitarists George Mason and Elliott's brother Greg; bassist and vocalist Paul Chadwick, and drummer Dave Whittle. Nestled among the band's versions of Santana classics and a smattering of other cover tunes, the boys rolled out originals penned by band members — '80s pop gems that had cut into them facets of Frank Zappa, the Tubes' Fee Waybill and The Cars. The song mix and the players' exuberance captured life at the beach in that time and won over a fan base loyal to the band to this day.

"They had the most eclectic crowd that would follow them," recalled filmmaker and friend of the band, Mark Constance, of Brentwood, during a recent phone interview. "It would be packed. Every one of your friends that you'd known all your life would be there ... I always thought they should have continued on," he noted of the band's breakup in 1983.

Greg Elliott, 50, of Plum Island, Mass., reflected on that notion just prior to being joined by brother Chris and Chadwick for an interview at the former Bogart's — now Guac-N-Roll Burrito Grill & Cantina in York Beach — last month. Greg is grateful the band didn't climb too high too soon.

"If we had gotten real fame or fortune, I wouldn't have survived ... but I'm still the wild man of the band," he said.

That "wild man" is now a teacher in the Haverhill, Mass., public school system and the band's disciplinarian, in charge of coordinating rehearsal times and gig bookings. These days, the band is rolling out its game plan to conquer the Seacoast from Massachusetts' North Shore to Portland, Maine, playing out at least twice a month.

"We've established a team and we have so much faith in everybody's ability to execute," Chris, 52, said.

In a tip of the hat to the New England Patriots' gridiron domination, Chris, of Portsmouth, and Chadwick, 53, of York, call Greg the "Belichick" of the band.

While that comparison didn't always fit, what did was the Elliott brothers' kinship with Mason, 52, who grew up next door to them in Brattleboro, Vt. They formed their first band, Azul, as children. The brothers were also what Greg called "PSFs" — "permanent summer folk" at York Beach, where the family had a home. Mason was often in tow with the clan, spending summers in York, eventually laying down roots there and raising a family.

Similarly, York natives Chadwick, and Gross, 54, the band's current drummer who joined a couple of years ago after sitting in, were teenage chums who first played together as members of The Carbuncles. During their formative years, The Substance members soaked up music any way they could get it: Mason and Greg Elliott started as drummers before switching to guitar in the eighth grade. Mason took formal lessons including music theory, then taught Greg, he recalled. Gross took private lessons on drums but also took advantage of classes in the school system, as did Chris Elliott on trumpet. Chadwick "never had a real lesson," he said, but found a mentor in guitarist Bobby Herne, a former member of the rock-and-soul outfit The Spectras, who is revered as the "granddaddy of York County guitar players," Chris said.

The big bang that spawned The Substance's formation came in 1980, Chris recalled, when two separate York bands, Bizarre Substance, and The Substance played on the same bill at the now defunct Cape Neddick Performing Arts Amphitheater. Bizarre Substance was fronted by Tom Simoneau with Randy Gray on bass, Chadwick on guitar, Charlie Gnerre on drums and Joe Gnerre on keyboards. Members of The Substance were then the Elliott brothers with Mason, Dave Whittle and Chadwick on bass. The show broke attendance records at the venue, Chris said, but more importantly, gave Chadwick, who had performed that day with both outfits, a glimpse of his future. Dispirited by the prospect of playing Billy Joel covers with the Bizarre Substance lineup, Chadwick jumped ship and landed squarely in The Substance camp.

"I was happy to meet these guys to do something creative," he said of that time.

"Paul was the best singer around," Chris offered.

"And he still is," Greg said. "And, he looked like Johnny Winter," Greg added.

Although the band called it quits by 1983, members carried on with other musical pursuits while building their separate lives. The Elliott brothers lit out for San Francisco in the mid-80s, working in bands on the west coast; Chris, now an audio equipment salesman at Guitar Center, is also known for his trumpet work in Portsmouth's Tongue and Groove, and Groove Alliance; Chadwick, a carpenter, is known locally for playing with the Personals and Smokehouse, the later band also including Gross, a pipefitter. Mason, as well a carpenter, brought his work ethic to Bosco, a band that played the wedding and ski-area circuit at Rocket 88, he noted during a break in the band's gig at the Ramsdell Rogers American Legion Post No. 56 in York on Dec. 10.

Over the years, The Substance has reunited for various shows, most notably in 2005 as a tribute to former band songwriter and lifelong friend Bill Davies, whose sudden death left many York Beach residents bereft. Over the past several months, the drive to reform the band in earnest gained ground, as members realized The Substance as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts.

"What makes it work is the passion everybody's got ... The fellowship of it all. I'd like to see it keep going," Gross said during a recent phone interview.

That passion was on display during the American Legion hall gig. Indeed The Substance appears to be living the inverse of the traditional rock 'n' roll story arc. Too often, bands start out lean and mean only to become bloated by excess. By contrast, The Substance has only improved with age. The result can best be described by what band members don't do on stage: They don't play too loudly. The don't play over each other. They don't overplay.

There's no showboating.

But there is a lot of virtuosity. What they do is tight but loose enough to give each player space to play. Gross is a confident timekeeper who uses all of his kit; Chadwick's bass is liquid and buoyant, Greg Elliott's guitar mines the rock side of the street while Mason's playing plumbs the jazz realm. Chris Elliott's impeccable horn playing opens the band up to cover a far greater range of music than the standard-issue cover band. Every member takes a turn at lead vocals. All of them are having fun. Fans from back in the day will still hear some of the band's beloved originals, "Lifeguard" among them, but many of the old songs exist on an "island" now, Greg said, and may not return to the song rotation unless beckoned by band members to do so. In their place are new originals such as "Life to Live," a rap with a "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" intro, written in tribute to senior citizens (or those just old enough to start receiving AARP information — that is, band members.) What's inescapable about the show is the musicianship the band exhibits, whether playing a selection from "Porgy and Bess" or Weezer, AC/DC or Stephen Sondheim (don't ask — just go hear it).

Friend of the band Denise Wilford, who popped up on the legion hall stage Friday night to sing the Clash's "Brand New Cadillac" while her husband, Donny, took a turn on the bass with the band, noted the intelligence that informs the show.

But to hear band members tell it, such intelligence is not to be outdone by the sheer joy of playing together.

"A lot of the reason we've gotten better is there is a certain kind of magic," Chadwick said. "You get the green light for being creative."

"For years I played with other bands and then came back to this," Mason said. "I love these guys. They are my best friends throughout my whole life. That's what cements us together."

Nancy Cicco is the editor of The York Weekly. Among her favorite memories from the 1980s are The Substance and her neon pink parachute pants. She can be reached at ncicco@seacoastonline.com.