Catfish Blue: Spirit goes on [Berkshire Eagle]
As published in the Berkshire Eagle on November 11, 2011
PITTSFIELD — Catfish Blue is not a band, not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. They are more like the spirit of a band that once was. And if you’re lucky enough, you might just catch a glimpse of this phantom group on the one special night of the year that they reappear, which, this year, just so happens to be Nov. 25 at the Colonial Theatre.
Catfish Blue first took form in the early ’90s when Steve McPherson and Todd Stentiford, two young musicians yearning to play some blues, along with their English teacher on drums and friend Jason Enis on bass, took the Mount Greylock High School talent show by storm with blues-influenced classic rock numbers like “All Along the Watchtower” and “Crossroads.”
A few years and acoustic shows later, Steve’s younger brother, Sean, joined the band on bass along with friend Conor Meehan on drums.
“That era of the band was kind of the definitive Catfish Blue,” says Meehan, “where we made a recording that was largely blues-based musically. The popularity of the band was largely built on the fact that everyone was so young and we played blues really authentically with a lot of energy. And Todd’s voice, which is unique and very old-school blues sounding, is kind of a trademark.”
Listening to that first recording, it’s easy to understand why the Catfish Blue fan base gre as quickly as it did. They sound more like a group of seasoned musicians playing a smoke-filled back alley night club for tips than a bunch of 16-to-twenty-something-year-olds laying down their first tracks. And Stentiford’s gritty vocals — falling somewhere between a young Muddy Waters and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder — are steeped with the kind of emotion and pain that only a older man would know.
The band skyrocketed from there, touring around New England and opening for the likes of Guy Davis and Pinetop Perkins. Sean left in 2000 to attend college in Minnesota, and Pittsfield-based bassist Ryan Lack filled his spot, while the band went on to record another E and play prominent New York venues like the Elbow Room and the Knitting Factory. Moving away from straight blues and more into original songwriting, they even decided to change their name to Northern Sky for a short period of time, which was “kind of a disaster,” as Meehan puts it.
Unfortunately, school and careers began to take over the musicians’ lives, and, much to the disdain of their die-hard fans, Catfish Blue went their separate ways.
“Around 2003 or 2004, it just kind of stopped happening because everyone was kind of going in different directions,” recalls Meehan. “It just kind of fizzled out.”
Not until November of 2009 would the members of Catfish Blue reunite for what would prove to be one of their most successful performances yet, impromptus as it was.
“The summer before we had all gotten together,” says Steve McPherson in a phone interview from his home in the Twin Cities. “We just talked about playing and all that stuff and we decided, ‘Hey, let’s do this — what better time than Thanksgiving to get everybody together and play?”
Meehan booked the show at the Old Forge restaurant in Lanesboro, one of the band’s old stomping grounds. It had been over five years since the group had last played together, and ten yeas since original bassist Sean McPherson had left, but every chord and lyric came flowing back like it had only been yesterday. Little did they know that family, friends, and old fans would come flocking — so much so that a line formed out the door.
“It was just crazy,” says Meehan. “So many people showed up, a lot of people couldn’t get in and it was really intense and super fun.”
The band soon realized the significance of this event, and with that a tradition was born. In 2010 they booked a larger venue and went back even further in their repertoire, unearthing some of the first songs they ever covered and coursing all the way through their North Spy-era rock originals. Despite their popularity the year before, the crowd was smaller — not because their fan base had shrunk, but because the show just so happened to overlap with another band’s “homecoming” performance, that of Barefoot Truth.
This year the two bands will join forces for one epic night of Berkshire-bred musicianship. Meehan contacted Andy Wrba, Pittsfield native and bass player for Barefoot Truth, about opening up for them at the Colonial. Ironically enough, Wrba has been a huge fan of Catfish Blue since the beginning, and so was ecstatic to bring the two groups together.
Three years in, both McPherson brothers await their next homecoming with eager anticipation.
“I get excited about a month leading up to it,” says Steve, “looking at what other songs we can add back in or one we hadn’t played the year before or just kind of excavating old material is really fun. It gets exciting, and it’s fun to come back to the Berkshires, you know, you get that little nostalgic, sort of high school reunion vibe.”
Sean is even more sentimental about his time back home. “These events feel like a great marker of our years as individuals, he says. “It’s super nice to get together with the people who taught me how to play music.
“Playing with Catfish Blue brings me back to the moments in my life when the center of your world was a handful of childhood friends who you spent most every hour you could with… Playing in the Berkshire brings me back to the wild frontier of crafting a musical career there.”
As Stentiford wails in the final track of their 2001 EP, “It’s good to come home.”
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