By NICK MOORHEAD
Imagine Tom Petty crossed with Carly Simon and a dash of Jack Johnson and you have Erich Luening, rock artist and well-known Islander. And this weekend he will release Red Flags, his debut solo album. A decade in the making, the CD has a stellar guest list that includes Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, who is also Mr. Luening’s childhood Island friend.
Mr. Luening’s lyrics are marked by a hard-won wisdom. “Just when you think you found exactly what you’re looking for, might be another on the way,” he sings in the rambunctious, fun-loving lead single Red Flags. What does the song mean?
“Don’t ever think you’ve found the best thing. Even the greatest thing you have going right now, there might be another along the way,” he said in an interview this week. The song owes a debt to underground pinnacle Dinosaur Jr. “The working title [of Red Flags] was Dandosaur Jr.,” he quipped.
At 43, does Mr. Luening have any concerns that he might be too old to be releasing his first indie rock album? “Hey — this is America,” he laughed. He’s been making music all his life, even though he has not released a solo effort before. “When I was 12 or 13, Evan [Dando] and I would record sounds on the farm; I’ve been making music since I was five or six,” he said. He is a former member of the rhythm and blues hip-hop group Second Power.
With all the catchy hooks Mr. Luening throws at listeners, you might think he can’t get down and dirty, but you’d be wrong. Why Must You is reminiscent of Jack White and Jimi Hendrix, all dank blues, thick guitar and scuzzy grit.
Mr. Luening wrote the song in a hospital bed; it was inspired by the tragic car accident in 2002 that many Islanders will remember when his friend Keith Korn drove a Porsche Boxter into the woods off State Road in West Tisbury. Mr. Korn, who was the chef at Ice House restaurant, was killed in the crash. Mr. Luening was riding shotgun that night and spent a long time recuperating in the hospital from severe leg injuries sustained in the accident.
“I’m just blessed I didn’t break my hands,” he said quietly. The song is about people leaving when you don’t want them to, especially when you’re stuck in a hospital where visitors can be scarce.
Spirituality is important to Mr. Luening. “After 9/11 I bought my first Bible to get in touch. After the car accident, I found strength through reading the Bible. It saved my life. It’s the reality of the strength of that universal higher power,” he said.
Mr. Luening grew up in Oak Bluffs; his grandfather was the minister at the Unitarian church here. He has no airs and is quick to correct the persistent false impressions of the Vineyard. “People think everyone [on Island] is rich,” Luening said. “I grew up on welfare.”
After high school, Mr. Luening had the itch to get off the Island, but he couldn’t afford college right away. So he joined the army, where he served for three years.
After the army, he was accepted at Boston University where he studied journalism. He has had regular work as a freelance writer for a number of newspapers and more recently turned his attention to writing about aquaculture and other marine issues. Among other things he is working on a nonfiction book about the changing habits of New England aquaculture.
And while it’s true that he lived the rock-and-roll lifestyle for quite some time, he’s different now. He recently gave up drinking and has been sober for a year. The only substance he imbibes is pain medication for his toe surgery (he suffered nerve damage to his left foot as a result of the car accident).
The album is all original material except for I’m in Love with a Girl, an Alex Chilton cover. (The Big Star musician died while Mr. Luening was recording Red Flags.)
On the record he cites Otis Redding, Neil Young and John Coltrane as influences. What is he listening to these days? Some indie rock names you might expect, like Bon Iver and Spoon, but also Blak Roc, a hip-hop side project of the Black Keys.
If you’re looking for earnest and powerful alternative rock, head to Nectar’s near the airport tomorrow night, Saturday, May 28. There, Mr. Luening will perform cuts from his debut with a band of notables, including Rob Myers, Buck Shank and George Berz. Dukes County Love Affair, or DCLA will play a quick show after Erich’s set,.
And tickets are only $5.
“It’s been great working with Nectar’s, they’re going to continue to support local acts,” he said.
He said he respects hard work and never leaves a project unfinished. “Over these many years, I’ve found completing things — getting things is done — is more than half the battle. Of course you’ll get lost along the way but just try to complete it.” He concluded:
“I’m so happy to be finished with the CD. Saturday night is going to be a celebration.”
Erich Luening performs at Nectar’s tomorrow night; doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5. His CD Red Flag will be available for sale.