Lowell’s favorite live rock band reunited and ready to blow the lid off Gemstones at back-to-back shows
Twenty years after forming, The Shods are still hailed by many as the best live band to emerge
from Lowell. Photo by Eric Pestana.
By Rita Savard
Kevin Stevenson was just learning how to walk when he heard his dad strum a few basic chords on a dime store guitar.
That was all it took. Stevenson and his brother, Eric, both picked up dad’s guitar and never wanted to put it down.
By the time Stevenson turned five, he was dropping jaws and raising teachers’ eyebrows at the kindergarten talent show, singing “House of the Rising Sun.”
At the same time, a hyper kid by the name of Scott Pittman had graduated from banging on his mom’s pots and pans to a real set of drums.
Every story starts somewhere. This one begins in Tewksbury, where Stevenson went to the technical high school and Pittman was a student at Tewksbury High. Both grew up with an insatiable appetite for music, listening to heroes who broke the rules like Grady Martin and Ray Charles, and rebels with something to say like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer.
Two kids this into music and jamming in bands in the same small town were destined to cross paths. When they did, conversation turned to songwriting and what happened next was like throwing a lit match into a pool of gasoline.
The Shods original trio.
If you were 16 to 20-something in the 1990s and frequented downtown Lowell’s club scene, then you grew up with The Shods.
Formed in 1993, the band’s original line-up was Stevenson, Pittman and Roy Costa. They were labeled a lot of things. Power-punk. Pop rock. Rockabilly. But the bottom line was simply this: The Shods were kings of the local scene because they were the coolest live rock and roll show in town.
“When we first got together we called ourselves The Shabs,” Pittman says. “Kevin’s guitar wouldn’t stay in tune so he said we sounded shabby. I thought yeah, that’s it — we’ll call ourselves The Shabs. Then we brought our cassette to the singer for Out Cold, this great local punk band at the time. He joked that we were way more shoddy than we were shabby. Of course we thought he was totally serious and that he was onto something. Kevin scratched the name off the tape and wrote in ‘The Shods.’ ”
By 1995 — the same year the city became infamously synonymous with an HBO documentary called High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell — The Shods released their debut full-length album, Here Come The Shods on their own Poorhouse Records label. Listen here.
Their regular gigs at the former Safe on Merrimack Street and Smithwick’s (now The Village Smokehouse) on Middle Street drew large standing-room-only crowds and helped pave the way for several other new singer/songwriters and bands springing up all over Lowell including Donny McHale, Melvern Taylor, Frank Morey, D-Tension, Jenny Riddle, Jen Kearney, Michigan Blacksnake and Cottonmouth — and that’s just breaking the surface.
If you think of Lowell as a person, then consider the 90s its cocky 20-something phase, where staying up all night and partying, experimenting with drugs, getting into bar brawls and vomiting on the sidewalk before waking up at a stranger’s house was the norm.
Mill City was slapped with the unflattering nickname “Crack Town USA” but it also gave birth to a unique era for local music and those who lived it will tell you, it has yet to be rivaled.
“On any given night, you could hop from place to place and see so much music,” says Pittman, who now lives and teaches music in Brookline. “Lowell was trying to get over this bad reputation and clean up its streets but at the same time, there was a lot of great music and songwriting coming out of the city.”
That original music being devoured in Lowell was actually being denied in Boston, where rock clubs were looking for bands with the same Seattle grunge sound dominating rock radio.
The Shods current lineup around 15 years ago (Left to right) Jay Buckley, Dave Aaronoff,
Dave Livingston, Scott Pittman and Kevin Stevenson. Photo courtesy of Scott Pittman.
“I knew if people could just see us, they’d really like us,” Stevenson said.
It didn’t matter if you were tuned in to Nirvana at the moment or immersed in Soundgarden. If live music was your pleasure, The Shods delivered a raucous, fun and unforgettable show. The kind you’d expect from a no-frill, blue-collar rock band that knows how to play their instruments and write great songs.
Listen to albums like 1995‘s Here Come the Shods or Thanks For Nuthin’ circa 2000, and you’ll hear solid, catchy songs that sound just as good today.
The band finally got its big break in Bean Town when they were booked for a show at the Middle East upstairs. Half of Lowell came with them. The room was packed, elbow-to-elbow and as far as Boston was concerned, The Shods had arrived.
Stevenson remembers friend Billy Ruane, a legendary character on the big city music scene.
“Billy said they sold more beer that night than any other show they had all year,” Stevenson laughed. “I thought, yeah, that’s because we brought Lowell with us.”
Once The Shods stormed Boston, they earned a reputation as a “must-see” live band, winning over new fans, getting frequent radio airplay and high praise from music critics at The Globe and The Phoenix, which declared “Nobody wears their sweat (not to mention their influences) on their sleeve or rocks a house with more full-on-flair and gusto than the The Shods.”
From there, the band’s story — which now includes the talented F.J. Ventre on bass and Dave Aarnoff on guitar — starts to roll out like an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music with all the highs and lows you’d expect from a classic rock and roll drama.
Record labels started to take notice and the little band from Lowell that could, signed with major label MCA but the deal fell through, leaving The Shods with a fully recorded album they couldn’t touch and no access to some of their best songs for more than a year.
The band’s answer to the chaos was 2000’s Thanks For Nuthin’ released on their own label. The song “Eddie Cross” became a rock anthem for the band and, said Stevenson, has come to symbolize The Shods and what they came together for in the first place: to play good, authentic original music and have fun doing it.
Over surging guitars, Stevenson sings a chorus that grabs your ears and lodges into your brain: “I don’t want to be on MTV…I don’t want to walk that lonely mile, I don’t want to go.”
The song was written when Stevenson found a vintage metal 1950s-style Zippo lighter at a little thrift store somewhere in between his and Pittman’s house.
“Etched into the lighter with a knife was the name Eddie Cross,” Stevenson said. “I thought it was the coolest thing. I took it home, and of course I was going through some turmoil at the time. We had people trying to turn us into something we weren’t. They failed, I’ll tell you that much. So I wrote the song about that situation.”
The Shods did tour with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Stevenson — a songwriting savant, who seems to translate every thought into a hit tune or toe-tapping melody — wrote music for the ABC Soap Opera One Life To Live, Showtime’s The Chris Isaac Show, and even began playing with Rivers Cuomo (from the band Weezer) on a side project that became known as The Rivers Cuomo Band.
But losing the deal when Fort Apache/MCA went belly-up also led to The Shods parting with two management teams and losing key member Aaronoff. And just when the band earned the title “Best Live Band” in the Boston Phoenix’s Best Music Poll, Stevenson was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that affects the nervous system.
As The Shods frontman began experiencing loss of balance and muscle control, he was forced to call it quits while he learned to navigate life in his new reality.
Even when Stevenson had trouble holding his guitar, he never stopped picking it up and trying to play. He still wrote songs and has countless recordings piled up that have yet to see the light of day.
Over the past 20 years, The Shods released five albums. Learn more on the band’s discography here.
It proved to be the ultimate healing therapy. Stevenson and Pittman have occassionally reunited The Shods, playing special rare performances, including the 2011 Lowell Folk Festival, which draws an annual audience of about 10,000 into downtown every year on the last weekend in July.
Stevenson also launched a brand new album in 2012 with a new band, The Unholy III, proving he can still command hard-driving punk and gritty Lowell rock.
“I’ll never be able to stop writing songs, it’s just in me,” said Stevenson, now 43. “I don’t know where the fuck they come from, but every time I pick up my guitar, there’s a new song coming to me.”
On a recent visit to Lowell, Pittman, who perused stacks of old vinyl at Garnick’s and snapped up some Lincoln dogs at Elliot’s, shared Stevenson’s sentiment.
Wearing a gold samba whistle around his neck, he walked a downtown sidewalk, brought the small device to his mouth and played Donna Summers’ 1979 hit “Bad Girls,” with that police-man whistle refrain of “Toot-toot! Beep-beep!”
Like Stevenson, Pittman’s life revolves around music. These days, he continues to play and tour with bluesman Frank Morey and teaches the next generation of musicians how to express themselves through sound.
Busting out an iPad, and getting as excited as a kid buying his first rock album, Pittman “the music mentor” is reminscent of Christopher Lloyd’s Emmet “Doc” Brown in Back to the Future. Instead of a DeLorean, his time machine is an Apple device. With a keyboard app he’s off, suddenly taking you back to 1955, to the roots of the song “Louie Louie” and a serendipitous mistake in chords that lead to the original tune written by Richard Berry morphing into the more popular 1963 cover by The Kingsmen that we all know today.
“I could always come up with a song and bring it to Scott and in two seconds, he’d get the song down and come up with a drum beat that took it a little farther,” Stevenson said. “He always added to the songs.”
So for any fans who had doubts — c’mon, did you really think you wouldn’t see The Shods play Lowell again?
“They’re a band unlike any other to come out of Lowell,” said Lauran O’Neal, owner of Blue Skies Prevailing, the music promotion company responsible for organizing the Two Much Shods event at Gemstones that also includes an amazing lineup of some of the best local music happening right now including D-Tension, The Fakeboys, Jenny Riddle and The Homegrown Gentleman, TKC, Cask Mouse, ’88 Rangers, The Only Things, Zip-Tie, State of the Union and Secret Snake Society.
“I’m excited about what’s happening in Lowell right now,” O’Neal said. “There’s so much creativity and unlike Boston, Lowell is just the right size to handle the new wave of artisits and musicans that are moving in. I can see Lowell morphing into a music and arts scene that becomes something people come here for, like an Austin, Texas.”
That sentiment was shared by the organizers of the 2013 New England Music Awards, who, when confronted with moving their venue from Boston, chose Lowell because it was relatively the same travel distance from each of the New England states and serves up a tasty sampling of venues for musicians to play at.
Lowell has long ago ditched the crack pipe, and entered a new phase where buskers play on downtown street corners, the state college is expanding, artists are flocking in droves and live music is getting its balls back.
“Lowell really seems to be coming into another period in time that’s good for a diverse live music scene to thrive,” Pittman said.
When asked how another chapter of The Shods would play out, Stevenson says with a laugh, “I’d love to have a good manager.”
It’s been 20 years since The Shods first rocked the stage at a small club in Lowell. The current lineup is Stevenson, Pittman, Aaronoff, keyboardist Jay Buckley and bass player Dave Livingston. Wherever their story lands them next, there’s one thing Stevenson predicts with confidence.
“In another 20 years from now, when I’m old, gray, in a wheelchair, whatever — I’ll still be playing music,” he says. “No matter how old I get, I’ll always pick up a guitar and write another song.”
Two Much Shods begins at Gemstones, 105 Market St., Friday, June 7 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, June 8 at 7 p.m. Get the full lineup here.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Two Much Shods Block Party
WHERE: Gemstones, above the Blue Shamrock, 105 Market St.
INFO: Brought to you by Blue Skies Prevailing, the rock event spans two nights and features some of Greater Lowell’s best musicians and bands. Friday, June 7, doors open at 8 p.m. and Saturday, June 8, at 7 p.m. For details, visit the Howl Events Calendar.