John Cate

John Cate: Saved By Song

John Cate is a songwriter’s songwriter. More than 1,000 songs have poured out of him, many finding a home in one of the 13 albums he’s recorded in the last 25 years. Several hundred of his tunes have been featured in movies and TV productions. His work is intelligent and tuneful. He can rock you or soothe you. His music finds root in the renaissance of rock music in the 1960’s and 70’s – Roy Orbison, the Beatles, The Stones. His songs have opened many doors for him. Most artists would consider that to have been a full cup. But that is only part of John Cate’s story in music. And music is only one part of John Cate’s story.

When John told me he was born in Liverpool, I had to smile. His ear for a melody is often compared to the work of other progeny from that hard-scrabble city. His ex-pat parents returned to the Boston area when John was still in single digits. Though he considers himself to have been raised in Boston, he did spend some of his teenage years back in Liverpool living with his godfather. The fact that George Harrison’s dad lived just around the corner was sheer coincidence. Back in the states, John joined his first band at age 12, a group led by Mark Zamcheck. The relationship with Mark continues to this day. Zamcheck was several years older than John and had some existing connections in the Boston music scene. So unlike most kids playing in their first band, John’s first gig wasn’t at a summer dance at the swim club, it was opening for Al Kooper.

The group matured and spent much of the 1970’s touring as “Zamcheck,” early leaders in the “jazz rock” movement. They toured with Gary Burton. They played the Newport Jazz festival. When guitarist Pat Metheny left Gary Burton’s band and formed his own, John stepped in as tour manager for a period. Zamcheck was attracting a lot of industry attention and John found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, Gore Vidal and the Hemingway sisters. John describes that period in the 70’s as “cool but impoverished” and characterized by a string of “near misses” with record labels and producers. By the end of that decade he set down the guitar. He went back to school, got a degree in finance and spent the next dozen years in the business world.

In the early 1990’s, John “had a relapse” – he started writing songs again! John had befriended members of the Boston-based roots rockers, The Swinging Steaks. That led to studio time, which produced a new single then eventually a full length LP in 1995. It was also at that time that John met lead guitarist Paul Candilore, beginning a brother-tight relationship that goes on to this day. John and Paul (I know, don’t say it) realized that they both spoke the same musical language, that they shared the same influences, had seen the same concerts, had breathed the same musical air. In their studio work together, they saw themselves as co-producers. And as a tip of the hat to other legendary production teams, they thought they should give themselves a name. Figuring that they “both had one good ear,” they dubbed themselves “The Van Gogh Brothers” – a moniker that felt so right they adopted it as the name of the band they were building around John’s songs. Bass player Clayton Young joined the band in 2002; he too is still a Van Gogh Brother. As someone who listens to their records and have seem them live many times, I’d say this longevity gives the band a “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” kind of cohesion. It’s not a singer with some hired guns, it’s a band. That’s an increasingly rare species these days.

During the decade of the 2000’s, The Van Gogh Brothers built a following playing Boston and other parts of New England but focusing in on Central Massachusetts. John was looking for a “residency” at club at which they could play regularly – once a week – to refine their skills as a band and build a word of mouth buzz about their live shows. A friend steered John to a venue called Vincent’s in Worcester. The strategy worked for the band and the club. Though it’s no longer once a week, they still play there!

Other important things were going on during these years. While getting the Van Gogh Brothers off the ground in the late 90’s, John also created an important showcase series at Boston’s original House of Blues in Harvard Square. Under the prescient banner of “The Americana Showcase,” John hosted monthly shows that featured singers and songwriters – among them Mark Erelli, Alistair Mook, Todd Thibaud and others – who have gone on to be regional and national standard bearers in a musical genre that is now known as “Americana.”

John was also making an impact on the business side of the music business. John was a founding principal with eMusic where he conceived the industry’s first digital rights licensing strategy. He was also a founding principal of Tunecore, now the largest distributor of online music in the world. The Founding Principal title also applies to his role at Audiam, a new digital music publishing enterprise.

In this same period of the early 2000’s, John also developed a relationship with music publishers Heavy Hitters Music, a firm specializing in placing music in Films, TV programs and other media. This matured into a robust relationship, placing more than 200 of John’s songs into projects like NCIS, American Idol, The Young and Restless, Dawson’s Creek and others. 

John also began spending more time in LA. He heard of a showcase at the legendary Molly Malone’s on Fairfax that attracted players like Don Was, Keith Richards, Lucinda Williams and others. Occasional showcase gigs in town helped further his song placement career as much of that work had migrated from New York to LA. 

In 2013, John moved to Los Angeles and created a Van Gogh Brothers offshoot, Voices of Van Gogh, with violinist Scarlett Rivera (formerly with Bob Dylan) and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Durrill. Over the course of the next four years, John established himself as a respected member of the west coast songwriter community. Few things require more courage as a creative than to throw yourself into an entirely new pool of talented, accredited professionals. In a way, you’re asking for a dose of cold water. Maybe that Boston Boy ain’t so hot. John calls it the best thing he ever did. He learned more deeply what he had to offer as a writer. 

In 2017, John Cate came back to us in New England. You can bet that his prolific writing output will mean more Van Gogh Brothers records. There will be more shows at Atwood’s and Toad. And so that the circle remains unbroken, there will be more shows at Vincent’s. Our own lad from Liverpool will still be writing songs we can’t get out of our heads. Aren’t we lucky….

(By Chuck McDermott)

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