If you’re looking for a songwriter to take you far away from everything, the pandemic, the economic fallout of the pandemic, the lockdown, the quarantine, the hunker-down, the social distance, the grind of routine and, above all, the endless endlessness of this more-than-year-long madness, then Rick Dobbelaer is your guy.
With two long-time musical cohorts watching his back, Rick has released a new album, “Right Your History,” that pushes, nudges, coaxes and teases as it conjures the solidarity that can only be found in an arena rock concert crowd; and the COVID-despair we’ve all found ourselves struggling with as though we are in an endless loop of late-night dive bars, moments away from last call, with nowhere to go but an empty home. Rick drills down on nuance. He steps back to take in the big picture. He smacks you in the back of the head as only an old friend could.
Anchored by collaborators Pete Jameson on bass and Dave Ramie on drums, Rick paints in broad strokes. He’s a start-to-finish, soups-to-nuts-kind of guy who doesn’t let anything fall through the cracks. There is a landscape to his songwriting, a broad reach, a big open sky swallowing peaks and valleys, the Northern Lights and the occasional solar eclipse.
My favorite song on “Right Your History” is “Last Chance,” which rocks gently back and forth with the rhythm of a one-person, two-joystick game of Atari Pong. “Highway” evokes the finer qualities of Rush, with plenty of percussive punctuation. “Suburbia” would have been a fine selection for James Brown to sing. And the chugging and yearning of “Lamb” spark ignition.
Having started out in 1989 as the quartet Last Tribe, Rick and the guys maintain a 1980s luster on “Right Your History.” But somehow they’ve managed to hang on to those things that worked in the 1980s, but fail to make us cringe 30 years later. I could go on-and-on with the analogies and the descriptions saying this sounds like that and that sounds like this. But I think all that needs to be said is that it’s obvious that Rick, Pete and Dave worked very hard on “Right Your History,” and that resonates for the listener, with me at the top of that list.
Last Tribe decades ago emerged from the New York City/Rockland County area with vocalist John Smith. A contract with Energy Records came about in 1992, with the album “Substance and Soul” released in 1993. There was also a four-song release from my favorite former nightclub, The Wetlands Preserve in Tribeca.
“We were an alternative band that was involved in the jam band world,” Rick said.
Last Tribe toured heavily, playing shows with Live, the Smithereens, Toots and the Maytals, 4 Non Blondes, the Radiators, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Meatloaf, among others. Their booking agency was William Morris and, Rick said, “It was a great time for live music.”
Last Tribe broke up in early 1994 after a headlining gig at Irving Plaza. In the early 2000s, Rick and John Smith signed a deal with Universal/Republic Records as the band Unspun. And Rick has continued to release records.
Life then unfolded in different ways for Rick, Pete and Dave. Rick had a heart transplant in 2003 and now runs his own landscaping business. Pete became a lawyer. Dave is a teacher and counselor.
But the musical inspiration continues.
“It has been different things over the years,” Rick said. “Live shows were always the driving force of Last Tribe and the other musical incarnations — the energy, the band working as one to take the audience on a musical ride. It’s very fulfilling and kind of cosmic. The camaraderie of being on the road with your ‘brothers’ and living a nomadic existence is an experience that’s hard to describe. These days, for me at least, it’s more of creating these songs from nothing and turning them into something that people can feel. I’m always inspired by the possibilities of the work in progress. I’m still amazed when I think ‘this song just trickled down to me and now it’s an actual thing.’ It’s so exciting being in the studio working on these little nuggets, fleshing them out and hearing what Pete and Dave bring to them. The studio is like our own little lab, and playground. We feel lucky to be able to do this.”
“Right Your History” sustains the Last Tribe thread in a big way, as the album’s origins can be traced to a reunion show featuring the original lineup in February 2019. With Smith based in Pennsylvania, Rick, Pete and Dave began rehearsing for the gig in New York, where they all live. The show took place and the three New Yorkers kept playing in rehearsal rooms.
Plans for Last Tribe to release another record didn’t materialize, but Rick had written a bunch of songs that maintained the momentum. So the trio headed to Hurley, New York, not far from the Town of Woodstock. They set up shop inside Dreamland Recording Studios, whose principals include longtime Ulster County resident Jerry Marotta, a legendary drummer who has performed with Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney and many other notable names.
The guys recorded at Dreamland in March 2020, just as the pandemic hit. Work on the project continued after those recording sessions, at Rick’s home studio, as the health crisis continued. “Right Your History” was released January 16, 2021, just months after the 2020 presidential election, which split a sharply-divided nation even further; nearly a year into the pandemic; and 10 days after supporters of President Donald Trump rioted at the U.S. Capitol.
All of this shaped the experience.
“I wouldn’t have written a song like ‘Right Your History’ 20 years ago,” Rick said.
The pandemic, in particular, he continued, has “given me time to dig in and really get deep with the songs. It’s also given me a lot of material. I started seeing friends’ marriages on the rocks, people struggling with drugs and drink, struggling with social discord, the anxiety of COVID, as well as what was happening in D.C. It’s been a crazy time and a lot of that is reflected in the songs.
So what are Rick’s hopes for “Right Your History?”
“Honestly, when we set out to do this it was just something we had to do — get these songs out,” he said. “I’ll take satisfaction even if only one person gets something positive from it.