Manchester music man Liam Spain: A fortunate son

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Liam Spain will perform Nov. 14 at the Palace Theatre’s Spotlight Room.

MANCHESTER, NH – It’s Friday night, and a small crowd has gathered at The Stark Brewing Company in the old mills by the Merrimack River.

There’s a tall-top of sensibly-dressed businessmen in polo shirts and khakis, a table of millennial girls glued to their phones, and a handful of stragglers seeking out a few brews and some tunes to unwind from the week.

In the back corner of the bar, beside stacks of empty keg barrels, there’s a drum kit and amplifiers in a cloistered space where the Manchester-based band Scalawag plugs in.

Guitarist Liam Spain, the 47-year-old Manchester-native and journeyman musician, nods to bandmate Peter Gustafson—the other guitarist and vocalist—as the drums kick in, and Spain starts to strum the rhythm to “Sympathy for the Devil.” Smooth as a beach stone, Scalawag slips into the groove.

To risk the cliché, Spain was born into this.

“He gets some of it from his dad,” said Gustafson. “His dad was a songwriter and storyteller. Liam’s a good writer and guitar player. He gets it.”

Liam’s father Michael Spain was an accomplished musician who performed in numerous folk bands, such as Molly Maguire and The Outlawed Raparee, touring the East Coast for decades.

Spain credits his father’s influence and exposure to folk culture, as well as the ubiquity of music in his childhood, as key factors that paved his own musical way.

“There was always music in my house, says Liam Spain, left, pictured with his dad, Michael Spain.

“There was always music in my house,” Spain said. “People were always coming over to play or rehearse. I assumed that everyone’s house was that way. It wasn’t until I started going to school when I realized I was so fortunate.”

Spain got his first guitar at 10 years old, and the instrument felt natural and intuitive to him. He recalls his father playing licks then mimicking them back to him.

Before Spain learned basic rock ‘n’ roll chord progressions—Spain’s mother also exposed him to many of the nascent ’50s rockers, such as Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson—he heard the music calling.

“It was very early on that I knew this was what I wanted to do,” said Spain.

The youngest of six children—three boys and three girls—Liam Spain first hopped on stage at 12 years old, playing shows with his father’s folk bands and fostering a life-long love for the genre.

The Spain brothers, Liam, left, and Mickey.

Yet rock ‘n’ roll and the electric guitar seduced Spain. He credits his sister’s constant spinning of Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 double-LP “The River” as a seminal influence for his own work.

“Liam likes to plug in and make some noise,” said Gustafson

After graduating from Manchester Central High School, Spain headed north to the University of Vermont where he was studying “the culture” of Burlington when something happened that would change the course of his life.

With his older brother Mickey visiting at UVM, Liam and Mickey took the stage together at a St. Patrick’s Day frat party to play a few traditional Irish folk tunes.

And from there, Michael Spain’s sons formed a folk band.

Much like the old man, The Spain Brothers hustled gigs and recorded albums of traditional and original folk tunes, including the album “Fields to the Stones.”

Then, one night while playing a gig at Biddy Mulligan’s in Dover, the Spain Brothers were noticed by another set of sons of a folk legend.

Rory, Shane and Conor Makem—the boys of the Irish-folk legend Tommy Makem, who famously played with The Clancy Brothers—performed regularly at Biddy Mulligan’s and they were impressed by the Spain Brothers.

So the five men came together and formed The Makem and Spain Brothers, a band deeply-seeded in folk tradition.

“There was a spontaneous joy that we had playing together, the huge sound we produced,” said Spain. “The five of us together were something else.”

Scalawag – jamming since the 1990s.

The Makem and Spain Brothers catapulted to the top of the folk music scene, recording albums such as “Like Other Did Before Us” (2006), “Home Away from Home” (2008) and “Up the Stairs” (2011).

The band’s crowning achievement was the two-volume “Sessions” albums—2014 and 2016, respectively—where they recorded with folk giants like Tom Paxton, Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and The Byrd’s frontman Roger McGuinn.

“Every one of those guys was a genuine, welcoming person,” Spain said. “While I didn’t feel their equal, I felt comfortable playing with them.”

While they no longer collaborate with the Makem Brothers, The Spain Brothers continue to play gigs whenever the opportunity arises.

“I never underestimate what Mickey and I can do,” said Spain. The Spain Brothers have a new album currently in production.

Then there’s Scalawag, Liam Spain’s rock n’ roll oasis.

“I absolutely love strapping on the electric guitar and playing songs with these guys,” said Spain, who has been playing with the band for nearly two decades.

Scalawag began as a popular jam band on the mid-90s Manchester music scene called Marty Keystone, which was headed by Gustafson. After their bassist moved to Florida, the band looked to regroup in the early 2000s.

The bassist they recruited, Brian Richards, was a friend of Spain and insisted the band bring him along for a trial run.

Symbiosis settled, and there was a new name: Scalawag.

Spain has been strapping on his electric guitar and playing with the band, which currently includes Richards, Gustafson, drummer Opie Helstrom and saxophonist Tim Krol. To date, the band has released two albums—“Wheel on Steel” (2006) and “Penny Arcade” (2010)—with a third album also in production.

Gustafson has nothing but praise for his bandmate[1]. “Liam has a great ear. He’s a natural,” he said.

These days, following a pandemic that found many of us at home, exhausting Netflix and harnessing our inner-Jack Torrance, Spain finds himself with some new things to say on his own.

Spain is trying his hand at a solo album.

“I think it was pandemic-related,” he said. “Maybe I had some fear before that I wasn’t good enough, but I decided to say ‘screw it.’ But I’m going out there, and I’m going to do it. I’m really enjoying it.”

Spain said that many of his solo songs are acoustic arrangements of pieces he’s written for both Scalawag and The Makem and Spain Brothers, a combination of rock and folk.

And for Spain, this encapsulates his life’s work, his raison d’etre.

“It’s all I know,” he said. “It’s been my life for 37 years. I’ve had many jobs that have come and gone, but this is my one staple, the one thing I can take to the grave with me.”


Catch Songwriter in the Round with Liam Spain on Nov. 14 5:30 p.m., at the Palace Theatre’s Spotlight Room, 94 Hanover Street. Tickets are $19 and available here.


[1] Actually, Pete asked that I include the following statement: “Liam cares deeply about his family and friends, and he can hold a grudge like a son of a bitch.”


 

About this Author

nathan-graziano

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Fly Like The Seagull was published by Luchador Press in 2020. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: http://www.nathangraziano.com