Once upon a time, 10,000 Maniacs was a quirky cult band from the outskirts of New York State. And after four decades together, that’s still pretty much what they are.
“We’ve all had a lot of experiences together. Most of these guys have been in the band 40 years, and that’s the lion’s share of their lives,” said frontwoman Mary Ramsey.
She said the band’s origins in Jamestown, N.Y., are still reflected in their music. “It could be our weather here. And we don’t live far from Lily Dale, which used to be a pretty famous spiritual center, so that may add to the haunting qualities. You can even hear that in a song like ‘Like the Weather’ — it’s a happy sounding song, but it’s really about a rainy day.”
The band celebrates its anniversary with a pair of area shows, Thursday at Plymouth Memorial Hall and May 1 at Cary Hall in Lexington.
There have of course been a few changes. Current lead guitarist Jeff Erickson was a friend and student of founding guitarist Rob Buck, who died in 2000. But the core of the band is still intact: Keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson and drummer Jerry Augustyniak have never left, while founding guitarist John Lombardo (who had a duo with Ramsey for a while) has lately rejoined.
Ramsey has also been in the family for a while: She replaced Natalie Merchant as lead singer in 1993, after touring with them as a backup singer and string player. She made her debut with the band during the heady days of their MTV Unplugged show.
“It was a pretty amazing experience, even if I was in the background,” she said. “People seemed to be buying millions of CDs in those days. And some of those unplugged versions have turned into the way we do the songs now.”
Though a fine singer in her own right, Ramsey admits that Merchant still casts a bit of a shadow.
“There are still times when I get mistaken for her, and I feel like it’s just part of the story. In the beginning it was different, because people obviously wanted to see her — that’s an understandable situation. But time has healed things up a bit, the wounds and the expectations.
“With this group we have our own identity, and it’s not that uncommon for a group to change personnel. But I can say that it was kind of stressful when I started.”
Doing the older songs, she said is “like interpreting poetry. I try to understand what all the lyrics and feelings are. What’s amazing is that certain songs take on new meanings, especially something like ‘These Are Days’ after the COVID shutdown. That really is a joyous song, and I think it makes people realize how lucky they are to be out again.”
Though they still play all the ’80s hits, their setlist stretches back to their very first indie-label releases. New songs are in the works too, with the first album in a few years coming up. “We have about 40 songs now, so it may be two or three albums. We keep re-recording them to get them sounding the way they want to be sounded.”
But just to make sure there’s no confusion about who’s singing, they’re using the official billing of “10,000 Maniacs Featuring Mary Ramsey” on this tour.”
“I only wish it said ‘yes, Mary Ramsey’,” she said. “That way it would spell the same backwards as forward.”
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