Rock of ages

A pair of Tampa rock vets puts out the best CD of their careers – and one of the best of this or any year

click to enlarge WHITE ROCKERS CAN'T JUMP: Ed Woltil (left) and Brian Merrill work out some rock moves in Merrill's backyard. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
WHITE ROCKERS CAN'T JUMP: Ed Woltil (left) and Brian Merrill work out some rock moves in Merrill's backyard.

A small sign on the door reads "Studio B," a wry joke befitting the men who make music inside its walls. Studio B is not part of some huge recording complex — there is no Studio A, no studio C or D. Studio B is a converted garage behind a bungalow in northeast St. Pete. It's owned by Brian Merrill, 44, a longtime Bay area pop-rock artist who's been a frontman for such well-regarded local bands as Barely Pink, Parade in Paris and Factory Black.

Behind the door, Merrill sits in the cluttered, track-lit studio next to Ed Woltil, 50, another highly respected rocker whose tenure on the local music scene dates back to the '80s. His band Mad For Electra regularly shared bills with Parade in Paris.

Merrill and Woltil make up The Ditch Flowers. Their new album, Carried Away, is one of the most polished, professional and, well, brilliant, albums ever produced by local musicians.

Which would be achievement enough. But the fact that it comes from two first-time collaborators well past what is considered their rock 'n' roll prime makes it an event.

And raises an inevitable question: Mick Jagger might get to run around on the stage in tights for seven figures a night, but with pop stardom seemingly reserved these days for 17-year-old American Idols, how old is too old when a band is just starting to establish itself?

Holding cups of Starbucks coffee, each man in a red T-shirt, jeans and Chuck Taylors, Merrill and Woltil look the very essence of partners. And friends. They're amused at the notion that they're long-in-the-tooth rockers.

"I have this running joke," Merrill says. "When someone wants to know my age, I ask them if they want to know my real birth age, or how old I am in rock 'n' roll years — because rock 'n' roll makes you 10 years younger."

Maybe you need to have logged a hefty number of "rock 'n' roll years" to make a record as sophisticated as Carried Away. Not that these guys are bragging. Both are by nature soft-spoken and modest, even self-deprecating; when Merrill enthuses about how good Carried Away is, he worries out loud that it may sound boastful. But ultimately he can't conceal his pride.

"About halfway through the project, I started going back and listening to the roughs, and it struck me: 'We have something really, really special happening.' It freaked me out a little bit. Up until that point, we'd mostly been doing it for fun. I thought, 'Man, this is so good. What can we do with this?'"

Merrill is quick to heap credit on Woltil, who wrote all but two of the songs and played most of the instruments. "It was like I imagined it would be like working with someone famous, like Neil Finn [of Crowded House] or Paul McCartney. Merrill says. "It was jaw-dropping at times. I was just sitting there in awe pressing 'Record.'"

Woltil, visibly embarrassed, looks at me and mutters, "Can you work that in? Something like, 'Brian enabled my genius; he's so reliable with the 'Record' button.'"

The partners grin. They both know it was a far more collaborative effort than that.

Why is Carried Away so good? Start with melody, a cache of catchy hooks that hark back to masters of the craft, from the Beatles to Squeeze to Fountains of Wayne. Both Merrill and Woltil possess clear, expressive pop tenors, with enough individual character to make their lead vocals stand apart. When the choruses hit, the guys are not shy about ladling on high-flying harmonies.

Although the Ditch Flowers disc is built on a power-pop foundation, it possesses a formidable stylistic range. For every electric-guitar-driven linchpin like "All the Time in the World" or "Since I Met You," there's a sweet, bouncy acoustic number like "Aunt Marie" or "Boys," a sentimental ode to carefree youth. Or a percolating confessional like "New Skin," where Woltil muses about the state of his life: "Christian liberal, 2.3 kids/ Alter ego on the skids/ Slippery destiny, trying on my new skin."

In all, Carried Away contains 12 very fine and varied songs — nothing even close to a dog — which is a rarity in itself. And a bonus: The lyrics have something to say. They come from the point of view of mature adults, family men — Woltil's been married 30 years, Merrill 17, both have two kids — who wrestle with problems big and small: spirituality, devotion to loved ones, alienation, regret, aging and all sorts of other stuff that swims around in the minds of grownups.

Although Ed Woltil and Brian Merrill both grew up in Pinellas County and were once denizens of a vital Tampa Bay rock scene in the '80s, they've taken divergent career paths.


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Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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