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Onstage: The Merry Pranksters

Tom Browning – too cool for words. I caught up with him outside the Cherokee Blues Club as he was rifling through his car looking for his chord book. I had met him before, on several occasions, once when I laid my motorcycle down in front of Mel Owen's Music Shop. I had a pretty good cut on my hand and good ol' Tom fixed me right up.

Tom also plays on my uncle's (Bob Hart) newest release, so maybe I'm a little biased. . . . I think Tom is one of the finest guitar players in Louisville. I have heard my uncle (who sometimes plays bass with Tom in Patty & The Hoods) comment, "Yeah, sometimes I take this old Gibson Les Paul, hit a note, bend the string way down, and pretend I'm Tom Browning . . .."

Cuz Tom can sure enough bend some strings. He has taught guitar at Mel Owen for over ten years – it's a good bet that many of the up-and-coming guitarists here in Louisville learned their craft from him. And he has played in so many different bands (many of them at the same time) that they are too numerous to list here.

Tom Browning. Photo by Darrell Ray Elmore

The first time I saw Mr. Browning was at the old Fat Cats, laying down some jazz with Rocky Amaretto and Curtis Marlatt. It was kind of a turning point for me, because up until that time the only live music I had been exposed to was the punk rockers that frequented Charlie's Pizzeria and the old Tewligans (the real one, back when they had carpet, ya know?).

Seeing these older, more professional musicians practicing their licks made me realize that there was more to rock and roll than simple three-chord progressions.

In the past, I've often used Tom Browning as a kind of yardstick when I compare local musicians . . . and perhaps I set my mark too high . . . anyone would be hard pressed to compete with Tom.

"I saw your piece on The Loony Wails," Tom told me as we went into the club. "I liked it, you really stirred up some stuff. I think that's what this town needs, somebody to stir it up . . . I wish just once some music writer would say 'yeah, I saw Bodeco, and that guy can't sing . . .!' "

But this was merely a statement of theory. Tom told me later that he had never seen Bodeco, and didn't know whether the singer (Ricky Feather) could sing or not.

Still, I thought it was pretty cool. Ricky can't sing.

The Merry Pranksters take their name from the roving band of acid-eating hippies that used to follow Ken Kesey (author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") around in a big psychedelic-painted bus. More on that can be learned by reading Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," but as far as the band itself:

"We do over a hundred and fifty songs," drummer Dave Young told me, "and only about forty of them are Grateful Dead tunes . . .."

Sure enough, this band has a loyal following all their own. I don't know if their fans gobble acid as much as the real Merry Pranksters, but if you stop in at Jockamo's on Sunday night you might be able to judge for yourself. Usually the place is packed, and the Merry Pranksters have been packing the place for over eight years.

Consistency. I think that is one of the main draws that this band provides. You can attend a Merry Pranksters show and be sure that what rolls out of the P.A. will be just as good as can be. Every time.

Tom says his biggest influence is The Beatles, but that he also digs more contemporary acts like Pearl Jam. He claims that it's the music that gets him the most, that it takes him about ten years to start to understand the lyrics. "I'm still figuring out some of those old Beatles lyrics," he says.

And while he maintains that John Lennon was his favorite, Tom's own voice seems to reflect more of a Paul McCartney sound. Not heavy-handed, not exactly what I would call beautiful, but more accessible, perhaps even functional.

Every note of Tom's music seems well thought out, like the plot of a Woody Allen film. This man does what he means, and means what he does. Watching him handle his guitar, you are very much aware that it is a precious tool to himÿ–ÿthat is the only way I can think of to describe it. Tom does not "wield an axe" or "play chops". . . he skillfully and dexterously manipulates a delicate instrument.

From the Grateful Dead to Led Zeppelin, The Merry Pranksters (with Ed Snead on bass, and R.D. Miller on guitar and vocals, along with Tom and Dave) could probably play just about any song you can name . . . and if they didn't know it, what with their innumerable years of combined experience, I'll bet they could fake it if you just hummed a few bars . . . like David Letterman's old band, "The World's Most Dangerous Band," the Pranksters can do anything you can do, probably better, and sometimes that's a little scary.

After the first set, I got a chance to really kinda "hang out" and "rap" with good ol' Tom. Aside from his constant use of the word "Cat" to describe individuals (a hip, musician thing that I truly found kind of endearing), his conversation was intuitive, charming, intelligent, insightful – I could go on and on. Talking to Tom is more fun than should be legal. He is perhaps the most down-to-earth musician I have ever met. I hate to slobber over him like this, but I just can't help it.

I asked Tom if he had ever heard of Mark Abromavage (guitarist for Kinghorse), and he replied: "Yeah, I think so. I've written down some of his stuff for my students."

Cool. Wish I could "write down some of his stuff."

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