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Sometime in 1977, in the middle of the night at a Nebraska rest stop, guitarist Wall Matthews had to use the bathroom. He was in costume, wearing one of the pink, hooded robes that he and his bandmates were using for a video shoot. “These two truckers were there watching this thing go down,” Matthews remembers. “One of them said to the other, ‘I saw something like this on TV last night—it was called Race with the Devil!’” Like an alien trying to fit in on his new planet, Matthews quickly tried to disarm the natives. “You don’t happen to know who won the Red Sox game, do you?” he asked them.
Music has taken Matthews to some strange places. From his native Baltimore to long-gone Washington nightclubs to a tour with a West Coast singer-songwriter and the Royal Swedish Ballet. This month, his long journey brings him back to the D.C. area. The guitarist will perform at Red Onion Records on U Street NW to promote Ceremony of Dreams, Tompkins Square Records’ archival issue of previously unreleased material that Matthews’ Maryland-based band Entourage recorded between 1972 and 1977. (Full disclosure: City Paper’s arts editor works part time at Red Onion, but didn’t know about this event before this article was assigned.)
The group’s only surviving member, Matthews has assembled a new generation of musicians to fill an old template, and it’s a good fit. Completing a circle of sorts, Matthews’ career seems to echo the mesmerizing shape of his band’s music, and conjures a kind of ancient ritual that brought the members of Entourage to a most unusual performing arts venue: a series of rest areas spanning hundreds of miles along a Midwestern interstate.
The story begins in 1970, when Baltimore native Joe Clark founded Entourage with like-minded musicians from diverse backgrounds. Clark was a staple of the Baltimore-D.C. jazz scene but was drawn to Celtic music and Middle Eastern scales that he’d explore on soprano saxophone. Matthews came from a folk scene influenced by Bert Jansch and British groups like Pentangle. The two were joined by a rock rhythm section and—in a sign of the times—street poet David Smith, who would sit in the audience at gigs and, when the spirit moved him, extemporize work that some of the band members thought was great; others, not so much.
Clark assembled these strange musical bedfellows for a regular after-hours gig at Baltimore’s legendary the Bluesette, run by his friend Art Peyton. According to reminiscence in The Baltimore Sun, the discotheque could comfortably fit 25 people but was regularly packed with 100 teenagers, who gathered for local psychedelic bands such as The Urch Perch.
Entourage were not the club’s typical fare— too far out for the teen demographic and rawer and more expansive than even the band’s later, recorded work. Matthews recalls that they were inspired by the experimentation of John Coltrane’s late-career masterpiece Ascension.
Clark was dedicated, but he couldn’t sustain that dedication forever. He made the long weekend commute to Baltimore from Millbrook, New York, where he had a gig in the dance department at Bennett College. He was equally dedicated to one guiding musical principle that he passed on to his bandmates: Forget the clichés of rock or jazz or whatever background you come from.
“He wanted to wipe … the idiomatic com- ponents of these different styles of music away,” Matthews explains. “He would say to me, ‘I don’t mind if you bend the note on a guitar, but don’t make it a blue note.’”
You can hear this theory in practice; while Entourage at times have the feel of new age and Arabic music, minimalist drones and jazz fusion, The Grateful Dead and Terry Riley, the group came up with a unique sound that transcended its influences.
By the time they recorded their first album, credited to The Entourage Music & Theatre Ensemble, the core group included viola player Rusty Clark (no relation to Joe) and Michael “Smitty” Smith, who was the go-to drummer when such jazz legends as Mose Allison were in D.C. Released in 1973, the untitled album was illustrated with a druidic, hooded figure playing a long horn over a fissure in the Earth, seeming to draw up some elemental forces from its core.
“We felt that the music was connected to the natural world—and to the transcendental world,” Matthews says. “There was this sense of otherness that if you let yourself give into that it would give the music a sense of something created in another realm.”
After that first album, Clark relocated to work for the dance department at Connecticut College in New London. Matthews went on to California, where he recorded and toured with singer-songwriter Biff Rose, whose 1968 song “Fill Your Heart,” co-written with Paul Williams, was covered by both Tiny Tim and David Bowie. A few years later, Clark called, eager to revive the band with a crucial new element: dance. Matthews headed back east. Entourage took on three dancers as permanent members of the group and, with choreographer Laurie Cameron, developed a 90-minute performance called The Neptune Collection, which happens to be the name of their second album. Released in 1976, it features a swirling green and purple vortex on the cover. But it was that hooded figure from their past that emerged on the band’s most surprising career turn: “A Ceremony of Dreams,” a half-hour performance video broadcast on Nebraska Public Television in 1977.
Producer Gene Bunge had attended an Entourage show in Pittsburgh, and thought they’d be a perfect complement for an ambitious state arts initiative: the Nebraska I-80 Bicentennial Sculpture Project, which placed a series of massive abstract sculptures around rest areas along the state’s major east-west passage. Bunge wanted the group to develop a performance around the sculptures, so the musicians and dancers donned costumes for a spectacle that suggested an abstract mid-1970s musical set around a 20th century Stonehenge in the middle of the American highway network.
Cameron choreographed numbers built on material from The Neptune Collection and what would have been a third Entourage album (these sessions make up much of the Tompkins Square release). The group rehearsed in Maryland before heading west for a schedule that required cast and crew to start at 10:00 at night, shoot until 2 in the morning, and then head back on I-80 in the middle of the night to drive hours to the next location.
Given the pulsing, otherworldly drones of the band’s music, it all sounds like a dream, if a very 1970s quasi-medieval dream, and the resulting video is kind of jaw-dropping in a way that you’d never expect from a public arts project in Nebraska.
Joe Clark died in 1983, and there ended the story of Entourage, or so its members thought. Rusty Clark died in 1986. Matthews went on to release a number of solo albums and composed music for the Royal Danish Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet.
Then, one day in 2004, it all came back. “It was dreamlike when it first happened,” Matthews says. He got an unexpected email from Cameron, who was then head of the dance department at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “Who is this guy Four Tet and why is he using Neptune Rising,” she wrote. A student in one of Cameron’s classes brought in a piece of music for a piece they were working on. It was “She Moves She,” on which Four Tet liberally samples a track from Entourage’s 1976 album. Suddenly, Cameron heard music that she had danced to 30 years ago.
“Part of me was pleased and flattered that it had happened,” Matthews says. He got in touch with Baltimore intellectual property lawyer E. Scott Johnson, who handled the 2 Live Crew sample of Chuck Brown and called the Four Tet violation the most egregious use of sampling he’d ever seen. The composer credit on “She Moves She” was transferred to Matthews and Rusty Clark, and Matthews tracked down Rusty’s kids to give them their share. During negotiations, Chrysalis Records, who then represented Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, let Matthews know that the egregious sampler would be performing in Baltimore at the Ottobar—just two blocks from Clean Cuts, the studio where Matthews was working. “He turned out to be a nice enough guy. “
Entourage’s second—or third—act came about thanks to a local folk singer who had long ago left the music business. Bob Brown, who now flies around the world training hotel staff to be better hosts, released two albums on Richie Havens’ Stormy Forest label in the ’70s. Brown was set to play Red Onion in 2016 to promote Tompkins Square Records’ reissue of his albums, on which he was backed up by Joe Clark and Rusty Clark. So Brown had known Matthews for years but had never played with him.
At that in-store performance, it was seamless, like a reunion of a band that had never been. It was Brown who convinced label owner Josh Rosenthal to listen to Entourage.
Now it was Matthews’ turn to get the band together with such young musicians as Seth Kibel on clarinet and Adam Gonzalez on cello. “We were able to get about 40 minutes of material together, and guess what, it sounds like Entourage, 40 years later.”
Entourage performs at Red Onion, 1628 U St. NW, on July 29.