Tom Mahnken never performed with noted bluesman Ed Vadas & his Fabulous Heavyweights. And, truth be told, he ended up doing just fine with his own Trailer Park band.
But on the eve of Vadas’ passing Feb. 18, the Trailer Park frontman fondly recalls his brief chance at becoming a Heavyweight contender.
“It was around 1987, and there was a spot for a guitarist in the band,” Mahnken says. “I went to Ed’s place, he listened to some of my music and we played a little bit. I was terrible, but he never let me know that. He simply said ‘You know, I think you and I have very similar styles and what I need is someone to provide a real contrast to my playing. So I don’t think you are right for the job.’ ”
While leaving the apartment without a gig, Mahnken looks back at the experience fondly, as he also left sans “anger, disappointment or lowered sense of self worth.”
He established himself as a scene anchor the following decade with standing engagements at the former Sheehan’s and Baystate Hotel.
Vadas played the blues, and he worked blue — hurling expletive-laden barbs at musicians and audience members alike when the spirit moved him. He arrived in the Valley via Nebraska in 1969. While attending UMass Amherst, he booked music performances at the Blue Wall venue. When not performing the blues himself, Vadas also attempted to capitalize on his acerbic wit with a foray into comedy. It was a short-lived experiment, but the humor/music format did land him a bit part in the 1986 Tom Hanks flick The Money Pit.
Valley boy John Allen says that he was actually party to a rare instance where Vadas was the one perspiring (as opposed to his usual role of sweat-inducer.) “I booked Ed and the Heavyweights to back Bo Diddley at Pearl Street,” he recalls. “They showed up to rehearse, so I went to collect Bo at the hotel and told him his band was ready to rehearse, and he just went bonkers. ‘Rehearse?!’ he yelled. ‘What the hell you mean kid? I ain’t rehearsin’ with them! If they can’t play Bo’s 4/4 rock ’n’ roll without rehearsing, they ain’t worth shit!’ I went back to Ed and the boys and relayed Mr. Diddley’s thoughts on the matter, and for a split second, Ed looked nervous!” Allen adds that, of course, Vadas and his merry band of music makers proceeded to do a stellar job backing the legend. And years later, when Allen decided to front his own band, Big Bad Bollocks, Vadas was able to exact some revenge with one of his patented, barbed insights.
“ ‘Hey Allen,’ he yelled to me from the other side of Pleasant Street as I was on my way to do laundry,” Allen says. “ ‘What the hell? Do you think you became a musician by osmosis or something from hanging around all those real ones at Pearl Street?’ He was right about that, incidentally, and I told him so!” Vadas was 71.
Shea’s back: The grand reopening of The Shea Theater (theshea.org) in Turners Falls has triggered a star-studded weekend of Signature Sounds recording artists March 4-6.
Fittingly, Red Baraat — an 8-piece ensemble from Brooklyn touted as “the best party band in years” by NPR kicks things off Friday, March 4. Speedy Ortiz — featuring Amherst’s own Sadie Dupuis — takes the sonic baton Saturday. Celebrated singer/songwriter Heather Maloney wraps it all up Sunday with special supporting guest Mikey Sweet in tow. Tix are $25 for Friday, $15 in advance/$18 at the door Saturday and $19 for Sunday, respectively.•
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