For Mark Cutler, making an album was a dream too long deferred.
He had been primed since the early 1980s, when he began weaving excellent rock ‘n’ roll in a small domain--Rhode Island--hoping that the bigger world would take notice and give him his chance.
Finally, last year, the chance arrived. After fruitless and increasingly frustrating years as singer, songwriter and lead guitarist of the Schemers, one of those classic regional bands whose number never gets called in the great pop lottery, Cutler finally had found his ticket.
His new band, Raindogs, had the sort of intriguing pedigree and unusual musical premise that was bound to draw attention.
The Boston-based band--which opens for Warren Zevon tonight at the Bacchanal--began with a bassist and drummer, Darren Hill and Jim Reilly, who had played together in the New Orleans band, Red Rockers.
Transplanted to Massachusetts, they decided to form a folk-tinged rock group that would reflect Hill’s Louisiana roots and Reilly’s Irish background (Reilly also played in the Belfast punk group, Stiff Little Fingers). In a fortunate accident, they stumbled upon Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham playing off by himself in a pub across the street from their Boston apartment.
Cunningham was well-known in traditional folk circles for his work with the Celtic bands Silly Wizard and Relativity. But after hitting it off with Hill and Reilly, he bought into their dream of making Celtic sounds that rocked. Raindogs set about wooing Cutler as their songwriter and front man. He joined early in 1987, and later recruited Emerson Torrey, his long-time guitar partner from the Schemers, as the fifth Raindog.
The result of all this multinational chemistry is a rock band that takes Cutler’s root sources--the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams--and transplants them on Wuthering Heights. Cunningham’s highland fiddle darts and soars and twists, lending new dimension to Cutler’s melodically inventive guitar rock. That sometimes sweet, sometimes stormy backdrop supports Cutler songs about the moral choices that await us at every turn--the disappointments and derailments, the aspirations and unsatisfied hungers that make living such a precarious but involving business.
By last May, signed to Atco Records, Cutler and the other Raindogs were in a New York City studio with Neil Dorfsman, producer of Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms,” one of the most successful albums of the 1980s.
Cutler was about to have his dream un-deferred in a big way. And then one of those stubborn moral choices he was always singing about popped off the lyric sheet and into his life.
Early work on the album was not going well, Cutler, 32, recalled in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Dallas.
"(Dorfsman) started hinting about wanting to bring other musicians in. It was obvious he didn’t think of us as a band” with a group personality that wouldn’t brook the use of studio aces as pinch hitters.
That left Cutler in a dilemma. His own career album sales stood precisely at zero. Dorfsman, with a proven platinum touch, was telling him that by bringing in some polished outside expertise, he could have a hit.
In the end, Cutler said, one of the veteran musicians whom Dorfsman was thinking of bringing in, drummer Anton Fier, talked to all the Raindogs and laid out the moral choices in stark terms.
“He said, ‘Mark, it’s up to you whether you want to be famous and feel terrible for a few years, or stick up for your band.’ ”
Cutler decided to stick up for the band. He placed a call to Atco, telling company bosses that the label’s untested new band wanted to fire its proven, blue chip producer.
Label head Derek Shulman was unruffled, Cutler said, and simply recommended a new producer, Englishman Peter Henderson, whose best known credits included Rush and Supertramp, two bands that had nothing in common with Raindogs. Recording at an inexpensive studio outside Boston, Raindogs finished its debut album, “Lost Souls,” without further incident.
“Lost Souls” never minimizes how painful it is to be playing out the innings of an unfair game. Even when Cutler tries to invoke a sense of home and hearth, on the countrified, splendidly melodic “This Is The Place,” he starts thinking about the ghosts that haunt the tenement neighborhood he regards so fondly.
With “May Your Heart Keep Beating,” Cutler says he set out to write an affirmative benediction for the whole world: “May your heart keep beating, may your pulse stay strong/May you run for miles, may your life be long.” But in creeps the uneasy, all-too-realistic clincher line that undermines those heroic hopes with a sense of life’s inevitable frustration: “I used to run for miles myself.”
“You have to throw a little of the pain in there,” Cutler said with a laugh.
Singing about such matters as moral crises and the nature of creative inspiration is not the conventional ticket to success in the music business. Cutler said he sometimes wonders whether his songs are too philosophical or abstract.
“That always occurs to me. You do have doubts, ‘Am I getting too heavy here?’ I ask the guys in the band and they say, ‘Yeah, it’s heavy, but it’s good.”’
Raindogs open for Warren Zevon tonight at 8:30 at the Bacchanal, 8022 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Tickets: $16.50. Information: (619) 560-8022.