Lost Leaders

Lost Leaders is my project with guitarist Peter Cole. It dates to about 2010 though truthfully Pete and I have been playing together much longer than that.

We met in the 90s through the New York jazz scene. Pete had a guitar trio playing his own excellent instrumental compositions and I occasionally joined as the bassist. I had a rock band at the time called Dirt, which included the fierce guitarist/songwriter Brian Silverman. Peter loved what we were doing and told me he also wanted to write rock songs, so he and I started a new rock band, naming it Slink (eek I know, I know). It was kind of 90s Power Pop, and I’m not sure there’s any cyber evidence of its existence. I think our first cowrite was called “Loser of the Year” and if that doesn’t tell you something about our collective mindset, I don’t know what does!

Fast forward to my wife and I having a baby girl, then Peter and his wife welcoming a daughter, then us both welcoming sons, me touring with Ollabelle and him playing bass in Lava Baby and both of us doing some solo shows. During the aughts we socialized but we also got together to write tunes for a new project.

Lowdowners in Stereo

Lowdowners album
Lowdowners In Stereo

Lowdowners began as Alt Country, if I had to give it a genre. But when you listen (and you can, Lowdowners is on Spotify), you can hear us veer into psychedelia that was paving the way for what we’d sound like in the next decade. (We even included an untitled Zeppelin-esque instrumental track that needed a name to go online, so Pete dubbed it Wyckoff & Bond and, bizarrely, it’s on sale at Amazon for 99 cents). Lowdowners played live quite a bit, with Tony Leone on drums and Adam Goldfried on pedal steel.

Pete and I were itching to expand into a new sound, but it evolved slowly. We first changed the band name and became Lost Leaders. It’s a double pun: a reference to us both being solo sing-songwriters attempting to co-lead in some kind of blind-leading-the-blind fashion, and a “loss leader” because the project only ever had a vague promise of ever paying for itself.

The “Lost” EP, The Perfect Lie

Our first Lost Leaders EP was called The Perfect Lie. It’s on Spotify, so it’s technically been found, but we never printed CDs and may no longer have the files. We recorded it ourselves in a rehearsal space in Long Island City rather hastily. We weren’t super satisfied with it, but one song in particular, “Miracle Mile,” seemed to point to where our sound was moving. We effectively swept the EP under the rug and began the eponymous Lost Leaders LP.

The Perfect Lie
Cover art by Ahron Foster

Lost Leaders

By the early 2010s I was regularly playing with the Levon Helm Band at Levon Helm Studios. I was up in Woodstock so frequently that I often slept in the Barn loft. The short story is, Head Engineer Justin Guip offered to record Lost Leaders there when no one else was using the studio. Levon would wander in from time to time in his bathrobe and rasp enthusiastically, “Sounds real good boys!” Our original plan was to record our new songs as a duo, extremely stripped down. But all that changed when Justin convinced us to let him jump on the drumset. Suddenly we knew we’d found the new sound we’d been looking for.

Lost Leaders LP
Lost Leaders

The release of Lost Leaders finally garnered us attention and great reviews in No Depression and other reputable places. Somehow legendary radio personality Jimmy Fink got ahold of it and passed it on to WXPK program director Chris Herrmann. He fell in love with it and put the song “I’m Gonna Win” into heavy rotation. With our new Westchester fanbase we found a home venue at Garcia’s at the Capitol Theatre, in Port Chester, while still maintaining our presence in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Woodstock, where we even opened a Midnight Ramble while Levon was still alive.

Heavy Lifting

If “Miracle Mile” pointed the way to the Lost Leaders LP, “I’m Gonna Win” pointed the way toward Heavy Lifting, an EP of six songs. We were becoming a leaner rock band, shedding all traces of our now-distant alt-country past. It got decent reviews and attention from music magazines and blogs including Relix.

Heavy Lifting
Heavy Lifting

We had a new, younger band including my brilliant nephew Will Bryant on keys and Marlboro’s amazing Lee Falco on drums. We recorded Heavy Lifting at The Building, a recording studio literally in Lee’s backyard. We were excited about our lead single, “Volunteer,” but its reception was tepid. Pete and I concluded that it was time for a fresh perspective. We needed a producer.

Performing live at Paste Magazine

Promises, Promises

Enter David Baron. I’d met him at Levon’s barn when he was playing with Simi Stone, and again when we were both working on The Lumineers sophomore album Cleopatra. We were hoping to find someone who understood rootsy rock and roll, but who also had a real pop sensibility. Dave fit the bill in spades. Pop? He tracked “All About That Bass”! Rock and roll? He’s Lennie Kravitz’s longtime go-to studio ace…and roots? Well, he’d produced countless gorgeous local singer/songwriters’ albums right in his Hudson Valley home, Sun Mountain Studio. It was here that Pete and I would begin our most exciting adventure yet: Promises, Promises.

Promises, Promises
Promises, Promises releases March 1 2019

We’d wanted to be pushed out of our comfort zone, and we got what we were looking for. Dave put our songs through the meat grinder: deconstructing, re-arranging, re-harmonizing, sometimes just stopping the playback and saying “that part can be better. Go change it.” So we would. And he was right. We were so shocked at first by the process that we feared we were losing our sound altogether, but Dave kept reassuring us. Inevitably, after sleeping on it, our refreshed ears confirmed that this was indeed the right direction.

David Baron photo by @AKInstagraphs

The album comes out March 1, but the first single is out now; you can listen to “Extra-Ordinary” everywhere. It was mixed by the great John O’Mahony and we really think this is our best work yet.

The Story of My Bass

The first time I laid eyes on a Citron bass was in the hallowed pages of the glossy gear-porno Bass Player Magazine, probably in the late ‘90s. The two instruments I owned at the time, a stripped and modified ’68 Tele Bass and a circa ’85 Romanian flat back upright, were both gifts—so of course it would be years before I’d come to truly appreciate how great they are. I’d drool over the shiny photos of unattainable pre-CBS Fenders or exotic wood boutique art pieces or ultra-modern synthetic too-many-string oddities and dream. Harvey Citron’s basses stood out for riding the perfect aesthetic line between classic and modern, art and functionality. And damn, they took a lovely picture.

Flash forward 20 years and I’m meeting Harvey at Levon Helm’s barn/studio in Woodstock. He seemed charmed and a little taken aback by how excited I was. Of course we instantly lapsed into bass talk, which we would pick up again and again without missing a beat each time we’d run into each other. It was during one of these chats that I told him of a dream I’d had while I was on the road with Levon’s daughter Amy…in the dream I was playing a bass that looked like a Höfner Beatle bass, but instead of a violin body it was an ‘F’ style mandolin body. I could see that bass as clear as day, and I woke up WANTING it. 

Harvey Citron’s early drawing.

Harvey furrowed his brow as I described the dream, asking a few questions about what details I could remember. Then after a moment his eyes brightened and he said, “I might like to try to make an instrument like that!”

The body is mahogany from Honduras.
The top is Adirondack spruce.
The build took from about March to December of 2018; Harvey was creating other basses at the same time.

And man oh man, did he ever make it. I’d seen the master repairmen at David Gage’s shop in Tribeca doing impossibly delicate work on 300-year-old upright basses, but I’d never seen a master luthier turn blocks of wood into an actual honest-to-goodness one-of-a-kind masterpiece. At times I could tell he was more excited even than I was. His capacity for mind-numbing details never ceased to amaze me, and he eventually proved to me that I actually DO care about 1/16” here or there. But from the fog of all those details, the bass of my dream emerged. Even better than I’d dreamed it.

Hand-wound Citron pickups
With its finish

The pictures don’t do it justice. But they are lovely pictures, and to some extent that’s where it all began.

Look at it! And he named it the Byron “F” Style Bass. All beauty shots of the bass were taken by Harvey Citron.

Check it out as “bass of the week” in No Treble.

I debuted the bass at an Ollabelle concert in Levon Helm Studios in December 2018.

How I Met Jackson Browne

Midnight Ramble

I was a conspicuous sight: electric bass on my back, wheeling my upright bass with one arm and carrying my bass amp in the other into the bright sunlit glass lobby of New World Stages in midtown Manhattan. I was confused right away because there appeared to be nothing in the atrium but an information desk, so I huffed over to ask where the benefit I was to perform for was taking place. As the receptionist was pointing toward a dark hole with a long escalator I sensed some other people approaching the desk from behind me. I thanked the woman and as I turned to pick up my bass amp, a hand had reached down to pick it up for me.

I looked up to see Jackson Browne

Jackson was smiling at me and gesturing his head toward the escalator as if to say “I got this, let’s go.” I blushed hard and had a momentary panic that he’d strain his wrist on my stupid amp. “Oh thank you so much, I just can’t let you do that!” I said, and he just smiled and said “Okay then. Shall we?”

I was there to play with Willy Nelson, so I was already pretty nervous to meet one of my heroes. But my head was really spinning now. Together, Jackson, his handler and I cruised down into the darkness and followed the circuitous hallways to find the theater where our event was to take place that evening.

We went to find the dressing rooms

When we got there, an event organizer with a clipboard was explaining to Jackson that there were only two dressing rooms, one for Willy and one that Jackson would be sharing with Willy’s pickup band. Instead of being at all put out by this, Jackson seemed delighted. He happily joined us in our tight quarters and at first just listened to Larry Campbell and Mickey Raphael exchange stories, then joined into the conversation and before long the instruments were out and the three of them were trading old blues tunes and traditionals, with Shawn Pelton thwacking his drumsticks on a chair and me wishing there were room in there for my upright bass. Jackson seemed genuinely thrilled to have been put in the band room. After one particularly juicy jam, his eyes widened and he cocked his head at us. “Hey, how would you guys feel about playing a song with me on my set?” Larry cracked a rakish smile and said “The question is, how would you have KEPT us from playing with you?”

(Larry, Shawn and I were recently reunited with Jackson Browne at the 2018 Dirt Farmer Festival, check it out below!)

That Time My Bass Exploded on a Session With Willie Nelson

I was flying high. The night before I’d had the unbelievable out-of-body experience of playing not only with Jackson Browne, but with one of my earliest heroes: Willie Nelson. Now I was walking into Right Track Studios on 48th street to record a version of “On The Road Again” with the man himself. It was a pure stroke of luck that landed me here to begin with. Willie never goes anywhere without his loyal band of many decades, but due to logistics he’d decided to fly out just with his harmonica guru Mickey Raphael and to trust Larry Campbell to put together a band. Larry called the great drummer Shawn Pelton and for whatever reason, me.

Unglued

The concert had gone beautifully, and I was still ecstatic the next morning as I wheeled my upright bass into the studio live room. That ecstasy turned to horror when I unzipped my case to discover that my bass was coming apart literally at a seam: The back of the instrument was coming unglued and had already opened enough that I could stick my arm through the hole. I got dizzy and went cold, then flushed hot. I’m sure I went beet red, but no-one seemed to notice. My mind started racing: Who could I call? Could I get another bass like, immediately? It was to be a very quick session, and Willie and Mickey had to catch a plane. No time.

I gingerly pulled the bass out and played a few notes. Not only was it rattling like a broken radiator, it had half its usual volume. The seam had opened up along the side I stand on, so I knew I could hide it if i could get it to stop rattling. Sitting on a stool, I squeezed the bass together with my knees and played a few notes. The rattle stopped! The bass was still quiet as a whisper though. I called over the engineer and said, “Must be the weather, but my bass just doesn’t have much volume today. Maybe we could set up some baffles to isolate it?” He put his ear to it, listened to me play a little, nodded and ran off to fetch some gobos that would not only serve to help him boost my mic but would have the added benefit of further obscuring the hole from view.

We played the song down a few times, and since it was to be theme music for a TV show we cut different versions: the regular vocal version and then instrumentals with each player taking the melody. I even played the melody on the bass, squeezing that thing so hard I could barely walk into the control room to hear the playback.

Sounded great. No rattle. The producer even complimented the sound of my bass. “That was all him!” I said, pointing to the engineer. It was at this point I realized that I’d just done a session with one of my heroes. I’d just recorded a version of a song I’d sung along with countless times with the writer himself, and I’d been so concerned about my instrument that I’d forgotten to be nervous about Willie at all.

Here’s video evidence!

My First Taste of Life on Stage

My earliest memories are of my dad building theater sets in our enormous den while my siblings ran lines, my mother squinting at the script with pursed lips, occasionally snapping out cues or corrections. The air was electric. It was magic.

Our mother was a professional actress in the flourishing ‘60s Houston dinner-theater scene, and once she had kids she got my older brothers and sister up on stage whenever possible. Wishing for more creative control, she started writing and directing children’s shows for us to perform as a family. Every Saturday morning of my early life we would travel around to public libraries and arts centers doing our little song and dance variety acts for kids and their clutching parents. Finally when I was 4 years old I got added to the show.

My first skit was an anti-litter parable.

It was about a bear family and I was Little Bear, a litterbug who is gently chastised by his parents until he sees the error of his ways and the whole audience basks in the aww-cute mid-‘70s smug consciousness of it all. Momma was playing the part of narrator Woodrow the bookworm, who was a hand puppet the length of her arm that she operated from inside an elaborately painted plywood “tree.” My brother Joe was Papa Bear, and my sister Mary K. was Mama bear. (Dad was working in his office that weekend.) I should add that we siblings were all in furry bear costumes, made by Mary K.

Little bear was supposed to misbehave, but…

The skit started fine, but to quote my sister’s recollection of the event:

“Little Bear was supposed to misbehave, but then there was supposed to be an END to it. Instead, the laughter of the audience was absolutely intoxicating to little Byron and he lost his marbles. He raged around like a maniac and ripped the newspaper Papa Bear was studiously reading right out of his hands with a big vertical right-in-front-of-his-face nose swipe and ripped it to pieces, throwing the shreds around the room. Poor Momma was helplessly raging behind the puppet stage, with Woodrow busting a gut bellowing “ Lit-tle Bear!! Lit-tle Bear!!!”, his puppet mouth opening as wide as Momma’s furious hand could reach. Feeling his power, Byron laughed with deep gusto and exhilaration and ran in front of the seated children, all now breathless with shock and wonder and delight, and with a full-body straight-arm circular gesture straight from vaudeville, shouted his irresistible invitation, ‘Come on, let’s GO!!’ The entire audience erupted to the revolutionary call, and he led the population in a roaring, shrieking, leaping parade around the room. It was a magical theatrical event. Woodrow/Momma never stopped bellowing for order, but I remember riding it out; there was no quelling the uprising. Eventually the crowd was reseated on the carpet, chests heaving and eyes sparkling, exalted with wonder at having been part of the ecstasy, and we picked up the story where we left off, completed the show, and saw our charges out with their parents. As soon as the door was shut on the last little one, I turned and without comment removed one of my ballet slippers and began beating Byron with it, which of course made a delicious whacking sound and didn’t hurt at all. He dutifully covered his head with his arms but the penitent effect was offset by his laughing the whole time. Momma’s fury was less funny, but tempered somewhat by her admiration and celebration of his abilities with a crowd, however capriciously that power might have been wielded.”

Eventually I learned the perils of hamming.

But man, that was a hell of a rush. I never would’ve guessed I’d grow up to be a musician—through age 15 I was still dead-set on acting—but I think we all knew early on that I was destined for a life on stage.

Me at Little Bear age, with cousins Paige and Melinda and my older brother Joe, aka Papa Bear.
Mary K in the Little Bear era.

April Snow on the Day We Said Goodbye to Levon Helm

The song “April Snow” is really a collection of somewhat disconnected snapshots from the day of Levon Helm’s funeral. As the procession eased into Woodstock, Tinker Street was lined with what looked to be everyone in the town, all waving slowly, as if time were slipping somehow. When we finally reached the cemetery I spotted Levon’s daughter Amy being swarmed by family, well wishers, journalists, photographers and the like. She caught my eye with a look that said “Help!” so I hurried to take her arm and steered her up the hill toward the grave.

All during Levon’s time at the hospital Amy had been a rock, so incredibly strong and present for all the visitors, but today she leaned heavily on me. It was a mob scene: family and childhood friends of Levon’s, musicians from all over the country, firemen, politicians, cops, even a high school drumline in full uniform just as he’d requested. The speeches were somehow both long and very brief; there was just too much that could never be fully expressed. Then suddenly it seemed to be over, and as the drumline began to thunder him home a flurry of snowflakes swirled around us and ushered us back down the hill to a new, emptier world.

April Snow Woodstock Levon

The Song “April Snow”

I recorded this song with Peter Cole for the Lost Leaders album Heavy Lifting. Peter’s haunting guitar psychedelia perfectly evokes the mood of the day. You can listen to it here.

How Byron Isaacs Met The Lumineers

I met Simone Felice (the producer for The Lumineers 2nd album, Cleopatra) at Levon Helm’s barn, during one of the now-legendary hootenannies known as the Midnight Ramble. On the side of the stage was a long radiator with a wood plank set on top that served as the VIP seating as it was next to the drumset. This particular evening a rakish fellow I thought I’d seen before was LOSING HIS SHIT, dancing, hooting and laughing his ass off with eyes glued on Levon’s hands. The guy was passionately reverent and clearly deeply in tune with the music on a SOUL level.

After the show I had to meet the guy, and found him to be way too intriguing to figure out in one meeting. Months passed, and maybe we saw each other a couple more times and exchanged numbers. Then a call. “Hey By, it’s Sy. What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Simone? Well I’m in Nashville, so probably can’t make whatever it is…” “No worries brother, another time.” Every six or eight months, I’d get the same call, out of the blue: “Hey By, it’s Sy. What are you up to tomorrow?” and I always had some conflict that kept me from making it, kept me from satisfying the growing curiosity about this mysterious dude who apparently throws a band together the night before, for instance, a prestigious festival. What’s his deal? Is the casual rough-shod mojo he exudes for real?

In July 2015 the phone lit up with his name again. I almost said it in unison with him. “Hey By, it’s Sy. What are you up to tomorrow?” Actually laughing, I said, “As it turns out Simone, I’m free. Whattaya got?” “I can’t really talk about it; it’s kinda on the DL…just catch the train to Rhinecliff and someone will pick you up.” Truthfully the identity of the unnamed band was completely overshadowed by me wondering what it would be like to finally work with Simone Felice.

The studio intern who picked me up thought it hilarious that I didn’t know who I was there to work with. He wouldn’t tell me either! So with more than a little anticipation I entered the control room. There was Simone with three other gentlemen: brilliant engineer Ryan Hewitt, plus Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites from The Lumineers. Wow, cool. Nice one, Simone! After hands were shaken I sat down and opened my bag, pulled out my bass, and took out a cable and my tuning pedal. Everybody laughed. I looked at Simone quizzically and, clearly delighted, he told me, “We’d been talking about bass players who need a million pedals to get a sound. I told them ‘check out this cat Byron, he’ll show up with a bass, a cable and a tuner, period.’”

How Byron Isaacs Met The Lumineers

📸 by AK Photographs with thanks to The Lumineers

Byron Isaacs Album Release – June 12 – The Loft at City Winery

Join singer/songwriter/bassist Byron Isaacs on June 12  at The Loft at City Winery for his album release party.

byron isaacs album release city winery

The album was co-produced by Hector Castillo (David Bowie, Bjork, The Brazilian Girls) and Brian Cullman (Lucinda Williams, Ghazal).

Isaacs will be joined onstage by guitarist Oren Bloedow (Elysian Fields, The Lounge Lizards, Chocolate Genius), drummer David Berger (Amy Helm, Alice Texas, Justin Bond, Mary Fahl), keyboardist Glenn Patscha (Ollabelle, Sheryl Crow, Marc Cohn) and multi-instrumentalist Will Bryant (Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers, Mike and Ruthy).

The album’s songs combine the quietly relentless grooves of Curtis Mayfield with the oblique simplicity of Neil Young. If you turn the lights out and close the door, the songs continue singing themselves long into the night.

“As transcendent an album as I’ve heard this year!” -Frank Gutch, Jr.  RockAndReprise