WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
I recognize that as a journalist I’m supposed to be objective. Well, not this time. I absolutely, unequivocally LOVE Rob Fetters. I became a fan the first time I saw him perform with The Bears at Philadelphia’s now-defunct Chestnut Cabaret in November, 1985. It was a night that changed my life.
I went to see The Bears because of my love – and I suppose obsession – with their other guitarist, Adrian Belew. But it did not take long to see that the wacky and frenetic Fetters was not just deserving of sideman status to Belew; he was the perfect complement and a monster guitarist in his own right.
Rob Fetters was and still is a brilliant guitarist – one of my guitar heroes. He also writes interesting, poignant and humorous songs. And he’s a fantastic singer as well.
Fetters was a founding member of The Raisins, a very popular band in Cincinnati, whose eponymous 1983 album was produced by Belew. But they never got that coveted record deal to put them on the map nationally. So Fetters and his Raisins bandmates Bob Nyswonger and Chris Arduser joined Belew as The Bears.
After a few years of touring and recording 2 albums with The Bears, the band decided to hibernate. Fetters, Nyswonger and Arduser went back to performing as The Raisins. And before long they changed their name to psychodots.
It is difficult to explain to Philadelphians how significant psychodots were and still are in Cincinnati. They are revered. There was even a benefit concert for independent radio station WAIF a while back where area bands played their favorite ’dots songs. Now that’s respect. And though psychodots were a true democracy – all three band members contributed material – it was the vehicle that allowed Fetters to shine.
Over the years Fetters came to accept that he would not be recognized as a guitar God like Page, Clapton, Hendrix or even his former partner Belew, despite his talent and ingenuity. And he created a pretty good life for himself. I spoke to him by phone from his studio, which is located near his home outside Cincinnati.
“I’m a music whore, a commercial music whore. W-H-O-R-E,” Fetters exclaimed proudly. “I love that work because it’s commissioned. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. And it takes me places I never would go, to music styles I normally wouldn’t touch. So really, it’s just continued to increase my technological knowledge of music production, so I can use it on my own stuff, the stuff that really makes me happy happy. And it pays the bills.”
Some of the stuff that makes Fetters “happy happy” are his infrequent concerts with psychodots, such as their traditional yearly Thanksgiving performances. And he is able to record his own music. His most recent release is “Saint Ain’t” (Baby Ranch, 2014).
“‘Saint Ain’t’ kind of became this project where I had many more songs, but the songs that ended up on ‘Saint Ain’t’ were very much songs, I believe, dedicated to my… children, (who were) teenagers at the time. There’s kind of a theme in ‘Saint Ain’t.’ If you live life it’s gonna hurt. It’d better hurt. If it’s not hurting, you’re not even alive. And you can convert that hurt into something beautiful if you want to. You can either let it beat you down or you can go – like rocket fuel.”
Another thing that Fetters does is production for other musical artists, including the unconventional duo Dawg Yawp – which features the unlikely instrumentation of guitar and sitar. Their eponymous debut full-length album was released on Old Flame Records in October.
“One of my best friends is Geoff Keenan… and I’ve been a kind of ‘Uncle Rob’ to [Dawg Yawp guitarist] Rob Keenan since he was a baby. About 2 years ago, I went to see Rob play with Tyler [Randall]. They were playing in this Belgian waffle house, okay? There was a mandolin case open (so people could) throw tips in there and these two guys (were) sitting on the floor playing. A guitarist and a sitar player with a couple of vocal microphones.
“When they played some of their original songs the crowd got quiet. I thought they were wonderful and I (asked) my friend Geoff ‘Do they have a CD yet?’ and he said ‘No.’”
Fetters realized that had to change. After a couple of years of development, Fetters worked with the duo first on an EP and then the album.
“I’ve never quite heard anything quite like Dawg Yawp and I’ve been in a band with Adrian Belew, where there was no shortage of exotic sounds in 3-minute pop songs and things like that. I felt like this was new music. The way they were writing songs was not a conventional format for a 3- to 4-minute pop song and yet (the songs are) extremely memorable and hooky. I think we all made a really cool record.”
Fetters sent the EP and then the full album to WXPN’s Dan Reed, who is from Cincinnati and was a Raisins fan.
“Dan finally (listened to) the whole album and went ‘whoa.’ He got it. So, that led to XPN getting behind Dawg Yawp. What Dan said was ‘I know they’re not on tour so I’m going to try and find them a gig.’ I believe he put everything in motion with (Russ Eisenlohr at) Dawson Street Pub. So (Dan) got me on the bill because he wanted to see me.”
A solo Rob Fetters show is a rarity in Philadelphia and in Cincinnati as well. During our interview Fetters inquired if he should play acoustic or electric guitar and decided “I think I’m going to bring my electric guitar. I think I’m not gonna be the acoustic guy.”
Good decision because I sure want him to rock out, solo performance or not.
He added: “(I’ll) definitely play a Bears song or two. I’ll play a psychodots song and I’ll play some Rob Fetters songs off my 3 solo albums.”
If you’re even the least bit curious about Dawg Yawp or Rob Fetters you should come to this show. Who knows if you’ll ever have another opportunity like this in Philadelphia.