From the Heart Not the Head
By Tamara Vallejos
Falling off the edge of a cliff is rarely ever a good thing. But in the case of Oliver Ray, you could say that painfully traversing down a Guatemalan volcano helped him launch into a music career that included a decade of playing with seminal punk rocker Patti Smith, and now fronting emerging psychedelic band Saint Maybe.
“It was one of those ‘I’m lucky to be alive’ experiences,” Ray says of the accident. “It was dark and I was alone, and these fireflies started guiding me down the mountain. They were illuminating the trail for me, but I ended up not following them and walking off a 30-foot cliff. I compound fractured my femur and had to crawl for, like, nine hours.”
It was the mid-1990s, and Ray, a poet living in New York City and working at a small press, was recovering from the injury when he met Smith. She heard “Fireflies,” a primal, haunting piece of music he’d written inspired by his experience, and penned the words to it, eventually including the song on her 1996 album Gone Again. “Fireflies” kicked off years of Ray playing guitar in Smith’s band, and he continued to contribute his songwriting skills to her prolific output until splitting off in 2005.
It was while touring with Smith that Ray met Winston Watson, who was drumming for Bob Dylan while Smith was on the road with the legendary troubadour. Many years later, after Ray had moved from the East Coast down to Tucson, Ariz., he ran into Watson again. The two began playing music together, and were later joined by an old friend from New York, Chris Sauer, forming the basis of what is now Saint Maybe.
While comprised of experienced musicians, Saint Maybe is a young band, newly formed within the past couple years, and only releasing its debut LP later this fall. Its free show at Pappy and Harriet’s on Thursday is part of its first trip to California, though the band spent 2012 honing its live sound during local shows in Arizona, as well as a recent opening gig for Smith and her band in Mexico City.
And what does the group’s sound, well, sound like?
“I don’t know. I don’t think we really fit in totally here in Tucson,” says Ray, who describes Tucson as a funky town with a great music scene, but with a sound that is geared toward desert rock and lots of country and folk influences.
“We’re a psychedelic rock band. We’re sonic. We try to build our sound and fuse together.”
He compares Saint Maybe’s approach to that of free jazz, and says it’s a group of guys who get up on stage together and spontaneously explore each song, seeing where the experiment will take them.
“We don’t really play things the same way twice,” Ray says. Sometimes the results of that are electric; sometimes they don’t quite get there, he’ll admit. But he gives props to the band’s audiences so far, who tend to be happy to go along for the ride.
“A lot of the people who listen to us know what we’re trying to do, so they stick with us,” he says. “I think we all agree that we try to play from our hearts instead of our heads.”
Saint Maybe at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com. Thu, Aug. 9. 8pm. Free.