.Maurice Tani: Americana without limits

Maurice Tani put on a cowboy hat and changed his life. The guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer has been a well-known name on the local music scene for several decades. He was the lead guitarist for Roy Loney’s post-Flamin’ Groovies band, The Phantom Movers, and spent almost 20 years in Big Bang Beat and the Zazu Pitts Memorial Orchestra, playing cover tunes in clubs and at corporate events. He made a good living, but began to feel the need to express his artistic voice in the music he was making. 

“There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you sing in a big band, with a horn section and backing singers,” Tani said from his Berkeley home. “Playing in a dance band paid well. I bought a house, and the touring was easy but, by the end of the ’90s, I was feeling there was an imbalance between art and craft. I wanted to get back to making music for fun. 

“I’d built up a business doing graphic design as a side hustle, while I was in Big Bang Beat. That allowed me to quit the band and go back to my own music. The problem was, at that point, I’d  been out of the club scene for so long that I found myself as the new kid in my own home town. My taste is pretty broad, but at that point, I had a blank sheet. I could have gone a number of directions, but I also wanted to do something my wife would enjoy. We both like country music, and I’ve always felt comfortable in a cowboy hat. I also appreciated the songcraft of traditional country music. So, after some time soaking up the local scene, I found a kindred spirit in Misisipi Mike Wolf and formed Calamity and Main, a four piece with two guitars, bass and drums. It was an electric honky-tonk outfit, four guys playing tunes with a testosterone soaked, Bakersfield sound. After one album, we all moved on to other things, but the band got me back on my feet as a songwriter.”

The next step was 77 El Deora, a band Tani put together with Jenn Courtney. It has been his main creative outlet ever since. “I began writing for a female voice, and that was an eye-opening experience for me. It gave me license to address subject matter that I wasn’t comfortable singing about myself. Later, once she had given the songs a voice, I found I was able to sing them and explore emotions and a vulnerability I had been hesitant to touch before.”

When Courtney moved to Los Angeles, Tani recruited Pam Brandon, who still fronts the band with him. She’s featured on the band’s recent release, This Is It! Live, recorded at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, just before the pandemic made playing gigs problematic. 

Live! includes favorites from Tani’s previous albums, along with newer material. Stand out tracks include “The Devil in My Ear,” a country tune that describes a self-destructive relationship with wry humor; “The Cheap Seats,” a ballad that combines 50s R&B, folk and country to describe the pressure that globalization has put on working-class Americans; “This Record Sucks,” a rockabilly rave-up that describes the painful aftermath of a divorce; and “How Deep Is the Water in Your Well,” a meditation on human kindness, featuring Salvia’s gospel-tinged piano and the harmonies of the Sons Of The Soul Revivers. 

Tani’s understated vocals keep your attention on literary lyrics that combine equal portions of dark humor and heartfelt emotion. “That attitude comes naturally to me. I’m basically trying to keep myself entertained. If I’m not, I change things around. It often takes me a long time to complete a song. I know people who say, ‘I wrote this song last night.’ That’s not me. Ideas come to me in small bits at 2:30 in the morning. I jot them down on a piece of paper and keep whittling away at them, rearranging them and working on them until they meet my set of expectations. It’s got to be interesting to me.” 

Some of Tani’s songs, old and new, will be performed at The Freight this Friday night, when 77 El Deora plays live for the first time in quite a while. “We’ll be doing two sets. We’ll open with me and the band and follow up with Pam Brandon and myself, doing the duets from our past albums. There will be country, but at this point, I don’t feel an obligation to stick to any particular genre. I pull from any influence that catches my ear: the Great American Songbook, folk, jazz, rock, pop, R&B. I just want to create music that keeps me interested.”

Maurice Tani plays this Friday, April 22, at The Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. Show 8pm, $20-$24 plus fees. Tani’s website is www.mauricetani.com 


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