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O.C. POP BEAT

Raindogs Blend Gaelic, Cajun, Rock : The Boston-based band will appear Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

March 22, 1990|MIKE BOEHM

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 outside 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 at the Coach House on Friday--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 longtime 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.

R.E.M.'s Peter Buck praised Raindogs after sitting in with them at a Providence club following an R.E.M. show late in '87. 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 undeferred 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.

"It is tempting to have this carrot dangled in front of you," Cutler said. "I was thinking, 'This guy's a heavy hitter, he could make me a heavy hitter.' But you have to think of how it weighs on your soul."

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 got ready to place a call to Atco, telling company bosses that the label's untested new band wanted to fire its proven, blue chip producer.

"I said to the (other Raindogs), 'I think we should be prepared to have (Atco) drop us,"' Cutler said. "Luckily, it didn't come to that."

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.

"It was just that we were coming from different angles," Cutler said of the split with Dorfsman. "He was a very nice guy. It's just that he's a perfectionist, and I like a little imperfection, personally."

With the album done, Cutler at last could look forward to being on the upsurge, to enjoying for a while the top side of life, far removed from the mine field of hard choices and hard breaks in his songs. But Cutler's life wouldn't stop imitating his art.

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