First, there are the songs. Literally, there are hundreds of them. What you are about to treat your ears with is a collection of compositions by Henning Ohlenbusch that spans twenty-five years; “Sit on Roofs” pre-dates his joining the band Humbert in 1996, while “How Many Bad Things Can a Good Person Do?” was written only within the last year. And although the song selections touch on the School for the Dead, Gentle Hen, Humbert, and solo canons, there are still so many great songs that got left out. Yet this is inevitable given the breadth of the prolific Henning’s considerably massive oeuvre. For instance, when Henning won a local singer-songwriter contest in the mid-2000s, garnering him a slot opening for Martin Sexton at the Calvin Theater, he did so on the strength of several witty, super-catchy gems like “One Lady Dancing” and “Photobooth Curtain,” neither present in this compilation. Also, ‘Uncle Henning’ has composed one song each for his brothers’ children, and each is a gem. “Zane,” “Ayla,” and “Erin” may or may not have been the inspiration for his Turkey Andersen, the pseudonym behind his two collections of delightful children’s songs, but any of them could’ve made for some interesting track choices as well. Who wouldn’t love to hear Lord Russ crooning “I Am So Glad That I Found My Hat” or an epic King Radio production of “I Like to Be Surprised”? Did someone just say, “Volume 2”?
Then there’s the guy himself. Henning possesses the most laidback type-B personality, and yet when it comes to his musical career, he is organized, focused, and productive. Combine those two, and it explains why many of his Northampton friends have referred to him as the “Dad” of the music scene. Rarely one to imbibe, he’s always willing and able to drive a friend home from the club (in fact, on one tour from Massachusetts to Chicago and back, he was at the wheel for the entirety of the trip) or to be the cool head when others might be melting down around him. For years of weekly open mikes, he always had an acoustic guitar on hand, tuned, and in great shape, for anyone who needed to borrow it in order to join the fun (the pejorative term for this well-used instrument eventually became the “town bike”). While playing in bands with Henning for twenty years, I only remember him losing his cool once- and this was completely justified- when a sound man made the decision to unplug us mid-set, which meant us forfeiting our spot in a “battle of the bands” competition (fortunately, the organizers overrode the overzealous sound engineer). Not only can I not think of anyone who dislikes the dude, almost everyone I know is fairly smitten by his serene demeanor and exquisite wit.
At any rate, most folks reading this right now already know these things. Y’all know what a nice guy he is, and even if you are familiar with a hundred of his tunes, you now have the opportunity to hear a bunch in these new versions presented by his many musical friends. That being the case, I’d like to relate a few stories of memorable instances of being onstage with Henning, and enjoying his often delicious between-song banter. These are just too good not to share.
Rewind to about 2005 in some dive bar in Boston with School for the Dead. The band playing right before us had just issued a set of heavy, bleak, minor-key dirges with much volume, atop which their front-woman belted out lyrics that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Nine Inch Nails record. Indeed, the chorus of their last song found her singing the phrase “I wanna crucify myself” repeatedly. It wasn’t going to be easy transitioning from the aesthetic of this group to the lighter fare of “Campground Daughter” and “Candy Cane,” but as soon as we were ready onstage, Henning solved the dilemma with an introduction along these lines: “Hi. We’re School for the Dead. Before we begin, let’s have a round of applause for [whatever the band’s name was]. I particularly liked their last song, but I don’t understand one thing. If you were to crucify yourself, how would you get the nails into both arms?”
One of the regular bits of Ohlenbusch banter was when he would aggressively challenge the audience with something like this: “Now’s the point in the show where we’d like to take a request. We can play any song ever written. Any song you can possibly think of, we can play it. Who’s got a suggestion?” And of course, we’d hear several audience members gamely offering songs. And it didn’t matter what song it was. All were treated with the same response. “‘Safety Dance’ by Men Without Hats? Never heard of it. Give me another one. Remember we can play any song, any song ever written.” And the suggestions would keep coming! “‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra? Never heard of it. Come on, folks, any song, any song ever written in the history of the world. What’s that? ‘Sweet Home Alabama’? Never heard of it. Come on, keep those suggestions coming. Any song ever written, any song…” It doesn’t seem possible that everyone in the audience wouldn’t catch on after one suggestion after another would get the same response, and yet it was inevitable- Henning would have to end the joke at some point and launch into yet another Ohlenbusch original, because people could not stop shouting out suggestions. I would just have to turn and face Brian at the drums so as not to break up laughing and give the joke away.
The classic Ohlenbusch onstage quip was reserved for those instances in which we were opening for some bigger profile act, often at The Iron Horse. It basically went like this: “We’re School for the Dead, this evening’s opening act. That means it’s our job to entertain you while you’re waiting for us to get off the stage.” In my view, that one’s right up there with the famous John Lennon line about rattling jewelry. But the thing that made the quip so profound is that people could chuckle at his witticism, acknowledge the logic of it, and yet because his songs were so consistently good no matter what the set list consisted of that night, part of you had to disagree. Audiences were rarely eager to see us leave the stage, especially not when we were performing mini-sets as openers. One good song after another, delivered with wit, charisma, verve, and genuine warmth. For fourteen years in that band, and over twenty knowing the guy himself, it has always been a pleasure.
-Anthony Westcott, September 2019
released October 4, 2019
Conceived and created by Lesa Bezo
Mastered by Dan Richardson
Artwork by Max Germer
All songs written by Henning Ohlenbusch
#13 Debbie Way - Vocals, Leo Hwang - Guitars and Bass, Roger Knight - Drums
#14 Recorded live in Somerville, MA, special thanks to Victor Cardoso Saviatto
#19 Matt Sharff - Upright Bass, Todd Roach - Percussion