Clay Berkes Presents Pope Of Fools
The First Album From His New Band Medicine Park
Pope Of Fools displays Berkes’ Inventive
Blend of Country, Soul, Folk, Rock And Pop
Just to name a few, some of the players and special guests Include J.J. Johnson // John Mayer, Joshua Zarbo // Spoon, Chris Masterson // Son Volt, Bobby Bare JR., The Tosca String Quartet, and legendary Austin guitarist Jon Dee Graham.
Clay Berkes has the voice of a crooner, the heart of a rocker and the soul
of a poet. On Pope of Fools, the debut of his new band Medicine Park, the
Oklahoma born and Austin, Texas based singer/songwriter and guitarist
demonstrates his mastery of pop with a stylistic range that’s hard to pin
down. He draws on country, R&B, Americana, rock and pop, with a trace of
Lone Star psychedelia thrown in for good measure. The result is a collection
of tunes that sound as natural as his singing voice, a smooth tenor that
delivers quiet passion and telling insight, with the touch of a master
Medicine Park was really born after producer, George Reiff (Ray Wylie Hubbard),
and Berkes decided to put a band together to record a few of his songs.
Pulling from some of the best musicians around.
Berkes describes, " It was really interesting gathering players from all different worlds and musical backgrounds and getting them together.
The players came from great acts ranging from John Mayer and Rocky Erickson to David Byrne and Keith Urban.
Most of us lived in the same neighborhood and the studio was just a mile or so away.
So family and friends stopped by to hang and contribute to the recording.”
The core band for Pope of Fools includes Berkes’ long time friend and
collaborator Brent “Mr. Shoes” Pendleton on keyboards, drummer J. J. Johnson, Joshua Zarbo on bass, and Jon Sanchez
on lead electric guitar. The album was recorded live to two-inch analogue tape at Bruce Robison’s Premium Recording
in Austin in three marathon sessions.
The music on Pope of Fools moves from quiet, singer/songwriter moments to
flat out rockers, with Berkes’ subtle soulful vocals holding things
together. Most of the songs deal with memories of loves lost or
unattainable, with his voice sliding up to a poignant falsetto to intensify
his bittersweet lyrics. “Daphne Wilkerson,” a hybrid of pop, country and
soul, features dreamy marimba, chiming clavinet, slide guitar and playful
baritone sax. Berkes delivers a quiet vocal full of longing and nostalgia.
The guitar hook that opens “I Don't Mind” is tinged with a reminisently familiar hook party taken from The Rockford Files theme song, the 70s James Garner TV show. It’s a sultry
R&B tune, highlighted by Berkes’ pleading vocal, Chris Masterson’s tough
guitar and Johnson’s solid timekeeping.
Berkes introduces “Who's Fooling You,” a sweet pop/soul hybrid, with one of
his warmest, most insistent vocals. Chiming guitars and the subtle colors of
oboe and brass horn give the tune a hint of Beatlesque psychedelia. Berkes
shows his range with “It’s the Right Way,” which blends quiet folk with
clanging guitars and kaleidoscopic lyrics; the Memphis meets do-wop ballad
“Dirty Fingernails,” with its lush female backing vocals and a sharp tremolo
baritone guitar solo by brad rice. the slow seductive boogie of “Love County Line,” "It was a happy mistake, clay says, " but this song has a JJ Cale vibe mixed with the impromptu dueling electric guitar's of jon sanchez and whit williams. it's a natural stand out "
“Pope of Fools,” the quiet ballad that gives the album its name, is a sad uncompromising reflection taken from the Victor Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“I can't say enough about the players who were part of this album,” Berkes
says. “George kept the grand scope in mind, but he also let us trust our instincts, we'd start recording each take and he'd either pull us one way or the other most times it came very naturally. Joshua coming from the band spoon had a unique and interesting bass approach but also brought a jazz prowess to the tunes.
Brent’s hooks are brilliant and always compliment my style, John’s a
master of guitar effects, but can slip into just about any skin. and J.
J.’s beats never fail. The complex pattern that
sounds like a drum loop on ‘Perfect Time’ is J. J. playing live. In fact,
most of the album was cut live with the band adding an extra dimension of
feeling to the songs.” The lush sounds on Pope of Fools will win you over
from the first note, while repeated listening reveals the depth of the
arrangements and the subtle skill of the players.
Clay Berkes was born in Ardmore Oklahoma, the son of free thinking parents who
encouraged his creative endeavors. " at an early age i would mimic the singers i heard,” Berkes says. “In first
grade, my mother got me piano lessons and I played sax until junior high.”
Berkes hocked his sax to get the money to buy his first guitar and, after
learning the basics from an Uncle, he taught himself to play.
“My parents were only 17 and 18 yrs old when I was born,” Berkes recalls.
“My father had just finished high school when they married. After they
split, I stayed with my mother. She always encouraged my creative endeavors. There was always music being heard from our house....Old classic rock records, funk, soul, as well as country and
whatever was popular on Oklahoma radio. Our family didn't really fit the mold, we were quite unusual in that Oklahoma setting. We lived all over the city of Lawton and the artillery base at Ft. Sill which were connected. I went to Geronimo Elementary on Ft. Sill a couple times. The windows constantly rattled day and night from artillery explosions. You get used to it quickly. The military base brought in a very diverse group of people from all over the world. Which i think was a good thing to be exposed too. "
“My stepfather introduced us to funk and soul. we had a reel to reel tape deck when we lived in germany, and I used to put on headphones and listen to
James Brown, Steely Dan, Elton John and Wild Cherry. That had a lasting influence on me. By third grade, I was banging on
pots and using wire clothes hangers as cymbals and recording my songs on a
little tape deck.” After his mother took him to see Cheap Trick at the
Lawton Coliseum, Berkes knew he was going to become a musician.
Berkes honed his guitar and songwriting skills in high school, but didn’t
start playing in bands until his first year at Oklahoma University. He was
in cover bands during college and, after graduation, moved to Austin. “I
didn’t like the thought of being one more musician searching for a dream or whatever, so
I sold my gear, except for my mandolin.” After lying low for a few years and
working as a bartender, landscaper and part time furniture mover, the itch
to make music returned. Berkes put together Love County with
singer/guitarist Russell Roberson. The band’s blend of pop, roots rock,
country and soul got rave reviews right out of the box. Critics praised
Berkes’ moving lead vocals, the smooth harmonies of Berkes and Roberson and
their repertoire of rockers and romantic ballads. “We played around Texas
and back home in Oklahoma. I pretty much did everything in that band, wrote the songs, put up the posters, did
publicity, sold merch at shows and booked and managed us. I also arranged
some live recordings of the band at The Saxon Pub in Austin which we put on
CD to sell at shows.”
Eventually bass player George Reiff, who has toured with Jakob Dylan and The
Dixie Chicks and produced Ray Wylie Hubbard, offered his
services. Love County went into the studio to work out a few tunes. During
the demo sessions, the bands flame blew out but Berkes and Reiff kept in touch.
“I told George I wanted to record a few of my new tunes. With his help, we
put together a stellar ensemble. We went into the studio with engineer Steve
Christensen, who just won a Grammy for Steve Earle’s Townes Van Zandt
record, and cut three tunes. Everything clicked. We had such a good time
that, at the end, everyone said, ‘OK, what next?--I said, let's do a whole record! and Medicine Park was born."
The result is Pope of Fools, the debut of Berkes’ new band Medicine Park, a
collaborative effort that includes some of Austin’s best players. With the
album in the can, Berkes and Medicine Park will do few local Austin shows
before hitting the road to support the record. “i see medicine park as more of a band collective, Berkes explains, " you never know who might be joining in on the fun."