by Alan Bisbort
Back in the day, the road to success in America stretched directly from college to traditional careers in the corporate, medical, legal, financial, and academic professions. While this model is still pretty much in play, the global economic downturn in recent years has shifted the ground a bit. The road isn’t as straight as it once seemed to be, and is strewn with occasional potholes and pitfalls.
Some Fairfield University graduates have pulled out the proverbial road map and searched for what William Least Heat-Moon called a “blue highway,” or what Robert Frost called “a road less traveled” – what the traffic engineer calls “an alternate route.” And what route could be more alternate, or what highway potentially more blue, than starting a rock ‘n’ roll band and hitting the road with five guys in a van?
Such is the case of Eric Donnelly ’01 and Tim Warren ’03. This pair of Fairfield alumni has proven that success can indeed be secured on an alternate route. The name of their five-member band, The Alternate Routes, is both prophetic and perfectly descriptive of their post-graduate lives.
The Alternate Routes create a big sound, which does not mean they are needlessly loud or pyrotechnic. Rather, their music has a symphonic sweep and is driven by deep emotion and sincerity, which comes across in Warren’s vocals as well as the interplay of the instruments. Though both of their studio albums were recorded in Nashville and produced by Jay Joyce (who has produced albums by John Hiatt and Patty Griffin), theirs is decidedly rock music, not country. And its power comes from within, not from any attempts to emulate other performers. Since 2003, The Alternate Routes – with Warren singing lead and Donnelly playing electric guitar – have toured the country several times, performed on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, opened for Gavin DeGraw and Kevin Costner and his band Modern West, and won an Independent Music Award for their song “Ordinary.” They’ve also recorded two critically acclaimed studio albums in Nashville – Good and Reckless and True (2005) and Sucker’s Dream (2009), a reference to Bridgeport’s most famous resident and character.
“The band was based in Bridgeport for a long time,” said Donnelly. “I grew up there and am inundated with Bridgeport lore. The city is the home of P.T. Barnum whose favorite saying reportedly was ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’.”
Perhaps Donnelly and Warren are hedging their bets to be on the safe side, but neither could be mistaken for anyone’s sucker. They’re hardworking, self-motivated, and they’ve retained their senses of humor, as well as their friendship, throughout the travails and triumphs of life on the road.
“The longer you do this, the more you realize that it’s running your own business the way you would run any business,” said Donnelly, a music and philosophy major at Fairfield. “You have good times, bad times, up years and down years. When we got into it we were naíve. We are just going to make music and figure everything out afterwards, but the longer you do anything, the better you get at it, better at your instrument, better at writing, better at performing live, better at being in a band.”
The other three members are bassist Chip Johnson, with whom Warren now shares a Bridgeport house called “Brooklawn” (name-checked on the albums), guitarist Mike Sembos, with whom Donnelly grew up in Bridgeport, and current drummer Mike Stavitz. (Like Spinal Tap, The Alternate Routes have gone through a number of drummers). Most recently, The band has released Live … in Seattle, which offers a good overview of their accomplishments to date as well as an indication of their refined abilities to connect with a live audience.
Donnelly and Warren met in 2003. Warren, who was in the University Glee Club, was in need of a competent guitarist for a pops concert he was helping to arrange.
“A friend of Tim’s saw me playing guitar on campus,” said Donnelly, who gigged frequently on and off campus and taught guitar his senior year at Fairfield. “She later came up to me at a party and told me that she’d given my phone number to Tim. I had no idea who she was, and as she walked away, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, who are you and how did you happen to have my phone number?’”
Soon after the pops concert gig, Donnelly and Warren discovered some musical common ground and began to play and write original music together.
“I was really into the music department,” Donnelly fondly recalled. “I studied jazz with Brian Torff (director of jazz and popular music) and had some other great teachers, like George Naha (adjunct professor of music) and Laura Nash (assistant professor of music). At the time, Tim was really into interesting, more complicated chord progressions. We had a similar musical vocabulary and we played through some of that stuff. The more we played together the more we realized we had a lot in common.”
Torff, a world-renowned bassist and composer, has equally fond memories of Donnelly. As a professor and founder of the Summer Jazz Camp, Torff has seen his share of talented young musicians pass through the program.
“Eric is one of the finest students I have had in my 20 years at Fairfield University,” said Torff. “His dedication and exceptional work ethic made him a standout as a very promising musician. Great students are open and receptive and soak things up like a sponge. Eric was always that way.”
Given that Donnelly was getting set to graduate while Warren was just a freshman, the musical bond took root in a short period of time. “I was getting ready to leave,” recalled Donnelly. “But then Tim stayed in Bridgeport for the summer and we wrote a lot together and we ended up starting the band. And, because Tim was still in school, I ended up playing a lot more at Fairfield University. We played a lot of gigs in bars and rehearsed and wrote together. It was fun.”
They encountered nothing but encouragement from students, staffers, and faculty members. Among Warren’s most treasured connections at Fairfield was with the Rev. Thomas J. Regan, S.J., now Provincial Superior for the New England Province of the Jesuit order.
“Fr. Regan was an inspiration,” said Warren, laughing. “I had the pleasure of taking a couple of his philosophy classes, too. I still get a call once in a while or an e-mail from Fr. Regan and I always feel so honored by that because he’s had a pretty amazing life. He has always been interested in the music thing and where it is taking me, and you can’t say that for a lot of college professors.”
Warren, a business and finance major, also learned a lot from Dr. Edward J. Deak, professor of economics, whose maverick style made an impression on him.
“He printed his own textbooks,” said Warren. “He came in the classroom and opened the windows because he didn’t like people falling asleep while he talked. I liked the way he taught because he knew he was a good teacher. I wanted to know what he knew.”
Warren is fully committed to directing The Alternate Routes toward the passing lane. “I recently had a conversation in Atlanta with a drummer who’s at the end of his rope,” said Warren. “He was joking with me that he has health insurance now because [music] wasn’t worth the hassle anymore. And I get that, but I’m not built that way. It never occurred to me to do anything else.”
Warren’s voice trailed off, and then he continued. “I don’t think I’ll ever be in a wedding band. That’s the way to pay the bills, sure, and I understand why musicians do it. Much as I’ve gotten down to negative numbers in my life with the finances, music has always been the quickest way out of debt.”
Life on the road as a rock band has provided countless indelible memories.
“I always tell people we played in Spokane on Cinco de Mayo, and apparently that’s all you need to say,” said Warren recalling some of the band’s more Spinal-Tap-like experiences. “I spent time with a bass player recently who was wearing a Spinal Tap T-shirt from their Shank Hall gig (a Milwaukee venue where Spinal Tap performed “Stonehenge” on their 1982 tour). He was talking about the era and those guys in the band. And the reason that movie stood the test of time is that a lot of those old clichés are true. You watch that movie, and it’s the funniest and saddest movie you’ve ever seen. It’s more fun to put this kind of lifestyle under a microscope, but I’m sure there are patterns in every calling like that.”
“There’s a certain part of the band’s life that is work,” Donnelly said. “We take pride in mapping out a tour, pride in planning hotels, routes. On some level, I’m a guitar player, but I’m also a travel agent and a truck driver and I balance the books. A lot of things go into being on the road. We could pay people to do some of this, but it’s not stuff we can’t do on our own if we just work a little harder.”
The glue that holds the enterprise together is, of course, the music.
“There’s definitely a romanticism about playing in an empty club,” said Warren. “I think if you don’t recognize that, if you can’t play in an empty club and feel like God isn’t there on some level, you won’t last in that scenario.”
Torff, who has toured and recorded with some of the giants of jazz and pop, including George Shearing, Tony Bennett, and Mel Tormé, has never felt compelled to offer The Alternate Routes any advice.
“I have heard them and like their work very much,” said Torff. “They are a young, hard-working band who are striving to find their own sound, and that is not easy. They don’t need my advice. Just work, experiment, and be open to their creative spirit.”
The Alternate Routes hope to release a new studio album, as yet unnamed, some time this fall, as well as play a “hometown” gig at the Quick Center.
For up-to-date news, check out the band’s website: www.thealternateroutes.com.