April 2, 2009

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Step by step
Aztec Two-Step at Simple Gifts Coffee House
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

It was a partnership formed 38 years ago when Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman met up at Boston coffeehouse for an open-mike night. After hearing each other play, they realized that they had found their musical other halves and together formed the pop-folk duo Aztec Two-Step (taking their name after a poem by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

“The response was immediate when we started playing together,” Shulman said in a March 26 interview. “We set ourselves apart from the pack, and I think it was because we had good songs — I still listen to them today and think ‘these are first-rate songs.’ We just found each other’s strengths.”

Aztec Two-Step will appear at the Simple Gifts Coffee House in Nashua on Saturday, April 4, at 7:30 p.m., performing songs from their vast repertoire of original music as well as selections from their new release, Time It Was — The Simon & Garfunkel Songbook.

The two released their first self-titled debut album in 1972, which featured the song “The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On The Road)”, written about the iconic novel by Lowell author Jack Kerouac. The song instantly became a folk hit for Elektra Records.

“Nobody to that point had done a song like that,” Shulman said. “We were definitely hippies and connected to that generation before us. The book itself was like rock n’ roll — people thought it was a fad. But generations after are still reading it and connecting to it, and Rex especially did, growing up in a sort of small, conformist ’50s town in Maine.”

The pair continued their success well into the ’80s, when their album Living In America was named in Billboard’s year-end critic’s poll and received the New York Music Award for Best Folk Album. Soon, the harmonic duo was appearing on TV and radio shows including the David Letterman show and in publications like Rolling Stone magazine.

Recently, Aztec departed from recording their own original material to make the live album Time It Was, a re-interpretation of the music of another popular folk duo, Simon & Garfunkel.

“With the rarest of exceptions, we’ve always performed our own material,” Shulman said. “But a few years ago, somebody came to us with this idea. The upshot was that when we started to do it, we really had a lot of fun with it and it’s been successful for us. You define yourself by what you do, and we’re singers, so as singers we can bring something original to these songs.”

Though they are prolific songwriters, Shulman said that it’s the live performances that really make up what Aztec Two-Step is all about.

“I think the engine that feeds us week in, week out, is our performances,” he said. “Up there owning the stage, playing for people — the audience is like the third member for us.”

Over the years, the duo has been able to cultivate a steady career in the folk music world, but Shulman admits the scene has changed since the heyday of the 1970s.

“There was a time when we started making records where we had that theoretical path to the mainstream,” he said. “I think that’s probably passed, but it’s a genre that continues to have a solid following. The highs aren’t going to be very high, but it’s always going to be there. There’s something to be said for being somebody’s favorite band, rather than everyone’s favorite band.”

While many groups dissolve after a short time (Simon & Garfunkel only made it a little more than 10 years), Aztec Two-Step recently celebrated their 38th anniversary in March.

“In spite of some detours, we connected with our audience, and at the end of the day, we’re not moving an army here,” Shulman said. “We have a deep friendship, and as much as Rex might annoy me and as much as I might annoy him, there’s only one other person that you have to get along with.”


Aztec Two-Step
When: Saturday, April 4, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Simple Gifts Coffee House, 58 Lowell St., Nashua
Tickets: $10 to $20, 883-3956 or www.cityartsnashua.org