the untimely death of singer Mark Sandman. by Rob Harvilla
He went quite loudly, in fact. Victimized by a heart attack at 46 years old, he collapsed onstage, two songs into a set before a massive festival crowd in Rome. As the singer-bassist for Morphine, a Boston-based trio he fronted along with saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Billy Conway, Sandman had four well-received studio albums and a B-side collection to his credit. When he died, he was sitting on a nearly completed fifth album, The Night, which was only a few months from release. But most important, he had found a sound -- no guitars, no senseless bravado, just slide bass, mournful sax, jazzy rhythms, and Sandman's lithe, plaintive baritone. "Low rock" the kids called it. The significance of Sandman's music was lost on no one, and his former bandmates now work to ensure that no one will forget that.
Rather than abandon the Morphine name, fan base, and seemingly bottomless back catalog, Conway and Colley chose instead to construct Orchestra Morphine, an elaborate musical homage to Sandman's work, enlisting the help of several Boston-area musicians who had known (and collaborated in other bands with) the rather prolific songwriter. Adding trumpets, keyboards, backing vocals, flügelhorns, and more saxophones to the band's standard bass/drum/sax lineup, Orchestra Morphine first surfaced in early February, playing a handful of enthusiastically received shows in the Northeast. That handful has now mutated into a full-fledged tour.
The nine-person outfit (featuring Colley on lead vocals and original Morphine member Jerome Deupree on extra percussion) plays a few old Morphine tunes and a smattering of songs from the Hypnosonics, a Sandman-led funk side project. But the focus lies squarely on The Night, the posthumously released fifth Morphine album, which, unfortunately, sometimes gets overlooked in the midst of all this chaos.
"For us, the obvious motivation was to hear this record in a live setting," Colley explains via phone. "To bring it to a forum where people could hear this music for themselves, with the additional instrumentation and arrangement that would best suit the material and somehow let the songs have a life on their own."
The Night's songs have extremely interesting lives, even by Morphine standards. "Top Floor Bottom Buzzer" flaunts the band's taste for wearily sublime funk. "Like a Mirror" exploits Sandman's poetic, Tom Waits-ish tendencies. "Rope on Fire" combines evocative lyrics with a pronounced Middle Eastern vibe. "A Good Woman Is Hard to Find," meanwhile, simply finds a groove and plows straight ahead. Lyrically, the album sounds eerily prophetic in retrospect, filled with ominous elevator references, disquietingly disembodied vocals, and sentiments such as "Leave this world/Come to me/I'm closer to you than I seem" and "These few seconds that I've left to go/Flames and chaos down below."
"It's not lost on us, for sure," Colley admits when asked about the apparent foreshadowing. "The symbolism and, I guess, the hindsight. A lot of the lyrics can register as someone speaking from the grave. I don't know. Did our friend know? Did our friend feel this? As living beings, we know that death is inevitable for everyone. You can't help but pay attention to it, because it's not going to go away. I think if Mark was writing about death, which I don't necessarily think he was, there's a certain amount of life and death that goes hand in hand every day. I think, for poets and writers especially, to be alive is to acknowledge that it's not forever. I think that's when you're most alive. Who knows?"
Most likely, Sandman did not intend The Night as a eulogy, but it's extremely difficult not to hear it that way. This alone would compel many bands to avoid the record altogether, on account of the fact that it's too emotionally loaded. But Conway and Colley took a different route, confronting and ultimately reinventing Sandman's swan song through Orchestra Morphine.
"I don't listen to it for pleasure at this point in my life," Conway admits of the record. "But I think the other part of it, that Dana and I have focused on, is playing the songs. That feels healthy. To be in a room with people, breathing life into these songs, making them stand up, making us realize what good songs they are. If we want to do anything, we want to do something that makes us feel healthy, and it felt healthy to play. We're musicians, you know? We express ourselves best by playing."
Morphine's legions of fans have warmly embraced this idea, albeit with brief hesitation.
"There's been mixed emotions," Colley says. "There's some die-hard fans who just say, "No, I won't accept anything other than what I knew Morphine as.' But I would say 99 percent of the people leave having really had a great show and a great time, and that's really what matters. Especially with Mark. People had very close personal relationships with him and felt like they knew him, and felt like he was speaking solely for them. To them. When you lose somebody like that, it's hard to know what to do with it, because you can't really say "I'm depressed because this person died,' because you didn't really know him. I think it's important for people to realize that it's OK, come on out, we'll listen to some music and have a good time."
Conway echoes the sentiment. "It's a little bit of a ceremony for everybody, a chance to reconnect and think about something that's hard for all of us," he admits. "But at the same time, it's music, and music is supposed to help us transcend. Everybody comes to a show with something else in their suitcase. But hopefully, as you play the music and share the time together, by the end of the night you can be on the same page, moving your feet and nodding your head a little bit."
Beyond the current Orchestra Morphine tour, both Conway and Colley seem uncertain of the next step, though both suggest there definitely will be a next step.
"In many ways, this is the maiden voyage," Colley says. "We're a baby band with more experience than most baby bands, but we're still in kind of the beginning stages."
"Everybody in this nine-piece band is either a frontperson or a founding member of their own band," Conway adds. "In the best-case scenario, all that talent could be pooled to write material that best suits this band."
Whatever path Orchestra Morphine takes from here, Sandman has certainly blazed a vibrant trail for them to follow. As he intones on "Take Me With You," The Night's closing track, "You want to begin again/Pretend you're innocent/If you believe/You can convince yourself/ I'm sure." Sandman's legacy will go on, and it will not go quietly.