Toano - Band Reflections
Toano was born out of Potlikkor.
In the spring of 2014, after Lb and I had moved away from Williamsburg, and Potlikkor had evolved into an occasional weekend gathering whenever all of us could get together (as captured by Jack Roebuck in the Potlikkor YouTube footage - see "Associated" on the Home page), my great friend, Clay Dingledine, who had been one of the original Texas, 2008 Atrain adventurers, moved back to our hometown in rural Virginia and had regularly been making weekly trips to Richmond to visit his dad, extended family, and friends. He would often crash at my house. My other great friend, Jack Roebuck, had moved to Richmond the year before. We are all musical, and Clay had been coming along to Potlikkor weekends to contribute and hang out, so I suggested the three of us strike something up, as we were all able to regularly and naturally meet at my house in Richmond at least once a week. I believe the name “Toano” came about during the filming of the Potlikkor weekend session (see above). We were all talking about putting together another kind of band (which included Jonathan, at that time, whom we were wanting to be our drummer, before we realized the logistics of the arrangement were not sustainable), and Clay suggested “Toano” be our name, in honor of the town where so much of our music had been born, where things always seemed right with our spirits. The place had been good to us, and had felt inspiring to me. We looked up the name to see what it meant, and the internet told us it meant “High Ground” in “Native American.” (We should have known this was a red flag. Years later, following a Toano show, a lady would tell us that she'd made it up and put it on the internet to drum up business for the town.) Excited, we all agreed on the name, and that was how Toano, the band, was born.
Unfortunately, due to the logistics and dynamics of Nature, Toano had to quickly downsize to just Clay, Jack, and me meeting once a week around my kitchen table with an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and banjo. Jonathan and I kept the Potlikkor door open, though, for whenever we might be able to get together; and if Lb could make it – all the better.
Toano (and Potlikkor) went on like this for that low-key, developmental year of 2014. We just met up, hung out, shot the shit, and brought out the instruments. Songs were born. We were friends.
Toano began as an acoustic trio. Then, we experimented with electric instruments and prerecorded backgrounds. We played our first two gigs with this setup, in the spring of 2015. The first public performance was at our friend Cole Sullivan’s farm festival Ticks & Ditties. And the second was at The Camel in Richmond.
While Jack and I were back visiting in our home area, one weekend, for a birthday party, we were served at a restaurant by Charles Johnson – a classmate of Jack’s from high school, whom I had remembered was a drummer. Charles told us he had just moved back to Virginia from music school in Los Angeles and was looking to play. Jack and I said great, let’s do this (as the 3-man Toano had been talking for months about finding a drummer).
Before that first practice we had at Charles’s house – located conveniently between Richmond and the Northern Neck, where Clay was living – I remembered that, over Thanksgiving, I had hung out with Landon Clark, another classmate of Jack’s from high school, at a party (which was actually at Clay’s house), and he had blown me away with how good he was on guitar. I called him up and asked if he wanted to come along to our practice with Charles. He said sure.
The first practice with the five of us was the true birth of Toano. It rocked. We very quickly decided to focus on becoming a consummate live act, which was a completely opposite priority to that of Potlikkor. This was very interesting to me. The earliest footage of these beginning days, when we were very quickly coming together and finding our flow, was captured by Charles’s girlfriend, Alexis (see YouTube link in "Associated" on the Home page). I believe these phone videos were filmed at either our second or third practice with all five of us present. This was April, 2015.
Things happened quickly for us after the 5-man Toano was born. We started getting gigs. We abruptly (and unexpectedly) were scouted and contacted to play The National in downtown Richmond on a roster of semi-local alt-country bands. We played The Camel, The Canal Club, Cary St. Café, Willaby’s in the Neck, and other places I can’t even remember. We found a comfortable fit at Poe’s Pub in Church Hill, Richmond and began a sort of residency there. The rest of 2015 was bold, brash, exciting, wild, colorful, expansive, and all about us experiencing and enjoying being the ruckus live act we had become.
In the midst of it, we rented studio space for a day at Sound of Music Studos in Richmond and – inspired by The Beatles’ Please Please Me – recorded our first album (Toano) live in the studio in one day. I feel it accurately captures the essence of our band at that time. (It is basically what you would have heard had you seen us play in 2015, except colored maybe a bit more inside the lines.)
2016 was a different story. Damn, did Nature turn a page… I don’t even remember exactly what all transpired, but the entire year of 2016 felt like one big struggle. It was a grind. We still played out, but we were often mistreated by venues, bar and club owners and employees, sound guys, even other groups… It felt like the joy and positivity of 2015 had given way to dark times. Clay had met Allyson, his soon-to-be wife, and was losing interest in the band. Jack had started his own business and was losing interest. Band practices were becoming more and more of a challenge for all of us to consistently be in the same place at the same time. We turned to recording. 2016 was the year of Toano II, the band’s second album.
Toano II was a long, dark, arduous struggle of a record. I believe it took us pretty much the entire year just to complete those five tracks. Our vibe as a band had become introspective. It was an interesting time.
It seemed the band was nearing its end. I was making preparations to move to NYC and focus solely on writing. But, on a road trip that December of 2016, I realized that the Toano spirit wasn’t finished with us yet. I decided to stay on in Richmond for at least another year.
2017 was, to date, the final year of the band’s activity. Jack and Clay had left, and Charles, Landon, and I pressed on as a trio – with occasional contributions from Jack. Toano III, the band’s final album, was born in the summer of 2017.
Clay’s and my friend and singer-songwriter, Jackson Emmer, came through on tour, opened for us, and hung out with me for a night – where we recorded his song, “For Lucy,” – the second track on Toano III. In my opinion, it's a gem. Jackson’s body of work is a treasure chest (see "Associated" on the Home page). He is a good dude, and it was a privilege to work with him.
We took a band retreat trip out to the mountains in western Virginia, where we recorded the live “Unjustified,” – the final track on Toano III – in a rec hall space with one room mic.
Then, Lucie happened for me, on that road trip of December, 2017.
Toano played its last gig at Willaby’s in the Neck – just Charles, Landon, and I – in February, 2017, about a week before I left for L.A.
As with Potlikkor, I view the band as undead and merely inactive.
Here are some reflections on my band mates.
Clay Dingledine has always had one of the greatest natural singing voices I have ever heard. I first heard it when he was singing Pearl Jam in class in sixth grade. And the dude can write a song. Check out his current band (with wife Allyson and guitar ninja Ryan Faulkner) Wildflower Honey (see "Associated" on the Home page). He has that bizarre, magical ability to write songs you think you’ve heard before, like some long-ago classic – but you haven’t. They're original. That’s talent. He is one hell of a bass player, too.
Jack Roebuck shouldered the burden and often thankless job of being the band’s electric banjoist. The mind numbing and soul crushing technical difficulties of figuring this out in the context of our loud and unruly, shabby rock band were truly insane. And really, only Jack had the stamina, technological intelligence, and quiet strength to pull this off. And he did so with characteristic grace and style. And he was always putting the icing expertly on our cake with his banjo parts. He also wrote the insanely catchy banjo hook for "To Be in Love" - which was a staple of our live shows and arguably our most popular song with fans. Also, probably the majority of our initial larger-than-expected fan base was due to the novelty of our being a rock band with an electric lead banjoist. Jack was our secret weapon.
Charles was always pushing us outside our comfort zones (and the box, in general). The dude hiked a mountain with a makeshift drum kit on his back, just so he could set it up and play in one specific cave (and record it). He was our true believer in the camaraderie and poly-symbiotic beauty of the rock band dynamic. He was also our champion idealist, and, as a drummer, he plays with a far-out swagger and singular fusion of precision and haphazard accident that I have simply never encountered before or since. Charles is a one-of-a-kind musician.
Lando gets the Toano MVP award, in my opinion. He did everything that was needed. He filled every gap. He excelled as our lead guitarist. He excelled on bass. He excelled at PR, at networking, at generating a buzz for our band, at being reliable and punctual when the rest of us weren’t… I can't remember a time when he was even late to practice... Lando made it happen, and he stuck it out with true devotion all the way to the bittersweet end (of activity...).
Each of these musicians and men are true souls, and the band would never have been what it was and is without a single one of them. It was Nature’s way that we found each other when we did, and that we did what we did when we did it. Whatever that was.
Toano was a damn good ride. Those were some of the best times and friends I ever had.
*special thanks to Jackson Emmer for lending his voice and guitar work and songwriting to "For Lucy"
*special thanks to Tucker Harris for lending her voice to "Highways" and lead vocal to "Feelings Made of Fire"
*special thanks to Bailey Horsely for the mandolin on "Feelings Made of Fire"
*special thanks to Alexis Leggett for lending her announcement of our name to "Falling," her background vocal to "Highways," for introducing us to audiences before shows, and for her overall support & spirit
*special thanks to Cole Sullivan for blowing a righteous harmonica cameo on "Fox"