Todd May’s roots run deep. The alt-country guitarist and singer-songwriter has been touring since high school, and his resume includes stints with some of this city’s best bands at the intersection of rock and country. In the ’90s, he traveled the nation with his Replacements-informed roots rock combo The Lilybandits. These days he’s on the road again as guitarist for Lydia Loveless, and when he’s at home he cranks out his own material with Mooncussers and Fort Shame.
But not until now has he released a solo album. Rickenbacker Girls, to be celebrated Saturday with an early show at Rumba Cafe, was recorded on a lark with longtime collaborator Pat McGann, compiling a decade-plus of unused material into another fine batch of grizzled, melody-addled Americana. Because May is available to tour a lot more than his bandmates, they persuaded him to release the disc under his own name.
“I still feel weird about it, seeing my name on it,” May said, perched at Rumba’s bar with a PBR. “I like the anonymity of a band. That’s why you start it in the first place. It’s like a gang.”
In advance of Saturday’s release show, May looked back at some of his most memorable moments in live music.
Best show I ever played: At last year’s South by Southwest with Lydia, that was in the top two or three certainly. It was at Red Eyed Fly. It was our last show. It was the Saturday night Bloodshot showcase. We had played like seven times in five days, so we couldn’t be more on. If you couldn’t figure it out after seven shows in five days, you’re not going to. And it was packed. We played really well. It was a really great show, in spite of the fact that the insulation was falling from the ceiling. It looked really cool. And every time the drummer, Parker, hit a cymbal, this sparkly dust would go flying everywhere. It looked like something we did on purpose, but it really wasn’t. He had like fiberglass in his eyes. But it was an awesome show in spite of Parker’s eye injury.
Worst show I ever played: It was actually the worst show that we never played. This was a Lilybandits show. We were in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and we were thinking, “This is really going to be good,” because we got there, and we set up, and the radio station came out with a truck and did a remote interview from the bar. So we’re thinking, “Man, this is cool. The radio station’s backing it. We did an interview live on the air.” And then, about 7 o’clock it started pouring down rain. Like, insane. Like, rain I’ve never seen before. And there were, like, tornado warnings in every surrounding county, and no one showed up. No one. We were sitting there, all our stuff was set up, and we’re just sitting there at the bar with the owner. He was the only guy there. And we’re, like, “Hey, what do we do?” And he’s, like, “Wait and see if someone shows up.” In the meantime, water started creeping toward the stage. There are cockroaches and palmetto bugs on the run. The place is flooding. No one shows up. Not one single person came to the bar. So we were all set up, and we never even played a note. So that was probably the worst show that we never played. God bless him, though; he paid us.
The worst show we ever did play was probably Pensacola. It was kind of a big room. There was no one there except for the bartender, and a guy walks in and he starts playing himself in foosball. And we’re kind of like, “OK, I guess there is someone here. Maybe that means they’ll start filtering in.” So we do a few songs, and this guy’s still playing himself in foosball. I guess he won, and he left, and I look at the bartender like, “Hey man, what do you want us to do? There’s no one here?” And he just kind of shrugs, like, I don’t care. So it was a very elaborate rehearsal. We played, and there was no one there.
Best show I ever saw: This one’s pretty easy for me because I got really lucky. I got to see Tom Waits a few years ago. It was in Jacksonville, Florida. My wife was trying to get tickets to the Columbus show. I come home, and she’s like, “I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is we have Tom Waits tickets. The bad news is those tickets are for the show in Jacksonville, Florida.” We just looked at each other for a moment, like, “I guess we’re driving to Jacksonville.” But it was fabulous.
Seeing Dwight Yoakam at the Ohio State Fair, back before they built the inside, back when they had the grandstand, the outdoor thing — I saw him there, and that was spectacular. I was really disappointed that Pete Anderson wasn’t there. And this guy’s playing guitar, and he looks like he should maybe be playing with Molly Hatchet or something. And so I was kind of disappointed, but about three songs into it, I’m like, “Who is this guy?” And I found out later it was Eddie Shaver, Billy Joe Shaver’s son. He was doing this section of the tour with Dwight. So I got to see Eddie Shaver play, which, like I said, after about three songs I wasn’t disappointed at all that Pete wasn’t there.
I also like when you don’t expect anything at all and someone just blows you away. I remember we played with a band called The Damnations Texas. They were from Austin. We played with them at the Star Bar, and we didn’t know them. We’d never played with them before or heard them. And they got up and played, and I was completely blown away. They were incredible. They were sisters. One played guitar and one played bass, and they both sang. They had that sisterly thing. It was like an Everly Brothers tightness, but, like, a recklessness that was more like X. They were really, really incredible.
Worst show I ever saw: I did walk out on a Ryan Adams show at the LC. It sounded great. The band was awesome. But somewhere early in the set, some guy started going, “Come Pick Me Up”! “Come Pick Me Up”! He starts yelling. And Ryan Adams ignored it for a few songs, and then he just started chastising this guy, like, “You know, I’m in a different place, and I don’t do that song anymore, and this is why.” It was really awkward. And then he played another song, and the second that he played the last note, he was trying to apologize for berating him in the first place, but everything he said just was like he was digging a bigger hole. It kind of pissed me off, but at the same time, I felt embarrassed for him, like, “Dude, just stop. You’re making it worse.” And at a certain point, I just thought, “I am not enjoying this.” So I think I walked out and drank at the Char Bar or something. I felt awkward. I just felt like I didn’t want to be there anymore.
Favorite place to play a show: The ones I know aren’t around anymore. Stache’s, of course. I’m sure everyone says that. Another place that’s not there anymore that I had many good shows at was Lounge Ax in Chicago. It’s in “High Fidelity.” When he goes to see Lisa Bonet sing, that’s Lounge Ax. The Mermaid Lounge in New Orleans, that’s also a place that’s long gone. I love that place. And there’s great ones still around.
I’ve grown to love the house show too. For a kid that came up playing in clubs, at first I was a little suspicious of it, but I’ve come to really love it. Shane (Sweeney) and I went out last July, and probably nearly half the shows we did were house shows. Probably my most favorite one was, we were actually booked in Baton Rouge at a club. When we got there, it was very clear that they didn’t really want us to play. I think their excuse was it was the opening night of Batman, and no one was going to be there. I’m like, “Oh, really? This is how this it’s gonna be?” But in the meantime they had started charging at the door. So these people were coming in, and they were charging them. So Shane and I, we kind of good cop/bad copped him. So we’re like, “If we’re not playing, why are you taking money?” And the guy was like, “OK, well, it’s your money. Go ahead.” So we get the money, and we give everyone their money back. And a friend of mine from Baton Rouge, he was like, “You know what? The hell with this place. Whoever wants to see these guys play, come back to my house.” So it was like a completely impromptu house show. Shane and I just stood in front of his fireplace and played songs back and forth, and it was a blast. It was so much fun. So that was probably my favorite one just because it was not expected.