Waiting FOR THE Call
Observations on Chris Garges and Waiting For The Call by Michael Elliott
The full impact of Waiting For The Call: A Musical Tribute To Chris Garges, erupts in the final moments of the DeFacto Brothers’ emotionally charged retooling of “See What Tomorrow Brings,” Doyle Bramhall II and the ARC Angels' eulogy to a fallen musical comrade.
A phenomenally soulful stratospheric vocal performance by Rebekah Todd builds to a gut-wrenching cry into the ether as James Brock’s drums gradually fade away. Guitars, piano, and mellotron are left to punctuate the pleading of Todd’s voice.
The listener is left to wonder just what tomorrow will bring now that the backbone, the anchor, has left the building.
It’s a fitting metaphor for losing Chris Garges - drummer, engineer, and producer of 2021’s Be Good To Yourself, a 27-song benefit project that assembled a who’s-who of North Carolina musicians to raise money for uninsured NC musicians in need of mental health treatment.
Garges had joined bassist Ed Bumgardner and guitarist Rob Slater as a member of the DeFacto Brothers, the “house band” for the Be Good To Yourself project. Rounding out the band were guitarist Gino “Woo Funk” Grandinetti, keyboard player Doug Davis, and drummer Larry Carman.
Proceeds from Be Good To Yourself went to the SIMS Foundation, a non-profit providing mental health services and support to musicians, music industry professionals and their dependents.
The two-disc album ended up on multiple end-of-year “best-of” lists.
Then, in February of 2022, three months after the album’s release, Chris Garges died.
Garges was first diagnosed with cancer in 2016; it went into remission.
In 2019, it returned as he and the rest of the DeFacto Brothers were starting work on Be Good to Yourself. Recording and mixing the album happened during and around his treatments.
He pressed on and pushed through.
The music kept him going. The work kept him happy.
“Chris was an interesting combination,” Slater observed. “He was a musician. He was an artist. His affective domain was highly developed. He got it.
“He was sensitive, in his way, but he was also a technician, an engineer. And the balance he had of those two things was incredible.”
Waiting for the Call is a 13-track celebration in memory of the life and talents of Chris Garges. It brings together new material with a few spare parts from Be Good To Yourself that feature his unique gifts. It’s a heaping helping of grief, joy, celebration, declaration, affirmation, and – most of all – love. A love letter to a fellow musician, husband, producer, engineer, and friend who bravely answered the call when it came, even though it was too damn soon.
Symphonies, Spongetones, and Studios
A native of Charlotte, NC, Garges started on piano and saxophone, eventually becoming fascinated by percussion.
He took part in the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra and studied classical percussion for several years. He became a Merit Scholar, attending the University of Miami where he studied in their Studio Music and Jazz program.
He absorbed Soca and Calypso while in Trinidad and performed in Seoul, South Korea.
He loved playing drums, but he found that he also loved the recording studio.
“Ed and I basically went to graduate school on making records with Chris,” Slater said. “He was the graduate course.
“And he was just a fantastic drummer.”
As an engineer, Garges worked with artists as diverse as Buckcherry, General Johnson, Aaliyah, Don Dixon, Marti Jones, Seymour Duncan, Arthur Smith, Kofi and Oteil Burbridge, Charlie Hunter, Fred Wesley, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, George Hamilton IV, Jamie Hoover and Mitch Easter, for whom he played drums for 14 years.
In 2014, he also became the drummer for The Spongetones, a legendary band from Charlotte, NC, that Garges first saw perform when he was a child.
In 2005, Garges was hired as a freelance engineer at Old House Studios in its original location in Gastonia. He was soon promoted to chief engineer. He eventually moved the studio to Charlotte after purchasing it in 2018.
Then he did “a ton of re-wiring and important electrical work to the space,” recalls Daniel Collins Hodges, a close friend of Garges, and a co-producer and engineer for Waiting for the Call. “(Chris) bought a Yamaha G7 piano, added an incredible sounding isolation (booth) for it to slide into, treated the spaces acoustically, and countless other projects to make the things work as seamlessly as possible.”
The Writing on the Wall
Then came 2019, Be Good to Yourself, and the return of Garges’ cancer. Throughout working on the Be Good to Yourself project, he divided his time between working on the project, doing other sessions and receiving cancer treatment.
He told only those who needed to know about his illness. He didn’t want the attention. He didn’t want to be defined by cancer. He wanted his work – his music – to be the loudest sound in the room and in your head.
Then came The Call.
“He called us on Sunday to say, ‘I’m done’,” Bumgardner said. Chris said, ‘They can’t do anything more…. Hospice is coming in and I don’t know how long I’ve got. A few weeks? A couple of months?’
Chris Garges died two days later, on Tuesday, February 22, 2022, He was 48 years old.
Cancer overtook him, but he went out the way he wanted.
“Chris didn’t want to be ‘that guy’,” Slater explains. “He was not going to put his loving wife, Carrie, through that protracted death watch. He was not gonna let that happen.
“The lyric (from the title cut of Waiting For The Call) – ’48 and smiling, at the writing on the wall’ – that was Chris to a T.”
Garges had made arrangements for Daniel Hodges to take over Old House Studio, which he did in April 2022.
“Not long after,” Hodges recalls, “Ed reached out to me with the idea to put out some songs that hadn’t gotten their due on the previous release and marry them with several yet-to-be-recorded songs that felt relevant to the loss and love for (Chris).”
“We got some time on the books, talked about recording a handful of tunes, and pulled together mixes Chris had done prior,” Bumgardner said. Hodges added, “(We) recorded some tunes, changed our minds a few times, had a panic attack or two, and ultimately came up with something that feels incredibly special and unique.”
Hodges knew he was stepping into big shoes.
“Chris was an incredible engineer,” he says. “He and I were incredibly close. And he always showed me so much respect as an engineer.
“But convincing myself that what I put out could hold up to the songs he worked on was a journey. Ultimately, I had to think of what Chris would have said to me. I could hear it very clearly: ‘Nah, man! You’ve got this. You know what you’re doing. You’ll do great.”
Waiting for the Call
The original Be Good to Yourself project was released as a 23-track double CD, a ten-track ‘best-of’ vinyl sampler, and a 12” 45 EP of four bonus tracks not included on the album.
The four tracks from that bonus EP are now included on Waiting for the Call, along with eight other songs and one bonus track all recorded between 2019 and 2022.
The new songs run the gamut.
Bonnie Raitt’s statement-of-purpose, “Livin’ for the Ones,” is belted out by the incredible Shana Blake. It includes Memphis-style horns from Tim Gordon and Brad Wilcox (who’ve worked with The Four Tops and The Temptations) as well as the always-reliable rock ’n’ roll punch of legendary drummer Terry Anderson. Then there is “Real” – a song by the mysterious supergroup De Piratas – given a treatment here that could be an outtake from Stage Fright.
Brian Swenk’s subtle banjo, Ricky Lee Nathey’s mournful pedal steel, and harmonium provided by Peter Holsapple turn “Real” into a standout on a collection overflowing with them.
Also included is a real treat for NC music buffs: a track by the Allisons, “the greatest North Carolina band you’ve never heard” that includes legendary singer Chuck Dale Smith along with Bumgardner and Grandinetti of the DeFacto Brothers.
“The Love You Give” was originally recorded and mixed in 1985 by Mitch Easter at his Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem (yep, where R.E.M. was first recorded). A wondrous slice of mid-‘80s college rock, it was co-written by Bumgardner and Smith.
Garges loved “The Love You Give” and brought it out of mothballs to punch up the original mix to 2021 standards.
The song was one of the last things he worked on.
Then, there’s the title track. “Waiting For The Call” was written and originally recorded by David Knopfler (the other Knopfler guy in the original lineup of Dire Straits).
That the song is one of the album’s most arresting moments says a lot. “(It was) the first session we did,” Hodges recalls. “(It) was great. All the musicians and singers Ed lined up were just the right choice for it.”
Mike Strauss was picked to handle the nuanced complexity of the vocals and he rose to the occasion, capturing the delicate balance of empathy, caution, and acceptance in the song’s message.
The song’s real surprise was the accompanying vocal by Lindsay Ryan Horne. “She just showed up with Mike Strauss,” Bumgardner said, laughing. “Mike said, ‘You might want somebody to do background vocals.’ Well, I didn’t know she was gonna sound like Kate Bush!”
“We thought we had it before she stepped into the vocal booth, before she did anything,” Slater adds. “So, we were thinking, ‘Let’s just see what she does.’ And man, when she delivered it, she just made it an order of magnitude better.” Local jazz legend Matt Kendrick lays down the rumbling, enthralling acoustic upright bass part. The piano and accordion are handled by Jack Gorham. “He's a junk dealer from High Point…who is a masterful piano player in the Nicky Hopkins/Leon Russell school,” Bumgardner said. “He turned out to be a great character and a total pro.
“We were thrilled.”
Such is the way of Waiting for the Call; veterans of the North Carolina music scene rub shoulders and share bandwidth (or CD space) with the lesser-knowns and should-be-knowns, all to honor one of their own. Someone whom people would answer when he called and who was ready when the call came for him.
“(Chris) wasn't going to pull the blanket of his cancer up over his head and let that be it,” Slater said. “He was going to go to the studio, or he was going to sit at his computer at the house, and he was going to mix stuff and do things until he just physically couldn't. And when he realized that he couldn't physically do it anymore, he was done. That was it. ‘Where's the button? I'm out.’ I can't do anything but admire that.”
There will be those who listen to this project for names they recognize or for songs they love. Maybe some who hear it never knew, or knew of, Chris Garges - and that’s OK. Unfortunately, however, everyone who hears this music or reads these words has been affected by cancer, by loss, by death. And we all know we must answer that Call when it comes. So, in that regard, the music here speaks to us all.
Chris chose to live until the end. May we all follow that example so when that call does come, we’ll be ready.
As Rob Slater said, “Where’s the button? I’m out.”
- Michael Elliott, Raleigh, NC, February 2023
Michael Elliott is a contributor to No Depression and is the author of Have A Little Faith: The John Hiatt Story, available from Chicago Review Press. www.michael-elliott.com.