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From May Day to iTunes, Yalie musicians reunite

It was May Day in 1970, and a crowd of nearly 20,000 packed the New Haven Green, eager for music and inspiration.

National guardsmen ringed the perimeter, charged with keeping order in a highly combustible atmosphere. Tensions in New Haven and on the Yale Campus had reached critical mass, with the Guard having used tear gas to disperse protests at a University in the throes of a student strike.

The area around the Yale Co-Op looked like an armed camp, and I can still remember the scent of the tear gas lingering from the night before.

Across the street from the Green, Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale was on trial for his life, accused of murder. The night before, President Richard Nixon had announced on national television that US troops had invaded Cambodia, further fueling the intensity of the student protests.

And on the Green, on a windy spring day in New Haven, James “JP” Connell and I (both members of the Class of 1972) performed together for the first time as musicians in the band Milkweed, opening for Elephant’s Memory, best known as the backup band for John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

JP had rehearsed with the rest of the band, which had been playing locally since the fall of 1969, for less than a week. At the rally on the Green, he referred to lyric sheets written on notebook paper—until a gust of wind scattered them throughout the crowd surrounding the stage. For the rest of the set, he faked it.

As inauspicious as that first gig might have seemed, it launched an odyssey that would continue for more than two years. Milkweed, featuring a combination of Yale graduates and dropouts, headed to North Carolina.

A few weeks later, in July 1970, the band—then composed of JP on lead vocals, me on bass and vocals, Mat Kastner (Class of 1970) on guitar, Tom Macdonald (Class of 1973) on drums and Stormin’ Norman Zamcheck (Class of 1970) on keyboards and vocals—played the opening set at the Love Valley Pop Festival (a North Carolina festival that drew a crowd of 200,000), headlined by the Allman Brothers. 

After a move to Atlanta later that year, Milkweed toured the Southeast, building a regional following while sharing stages with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Al Kooper, John Hammond Jr., the Hampton Grease Band, Wet Willie and Randall Bramblett.

Personnel came and went. Kastner and Zamcheck departed. John Daniel (a Wesleyan College dropout) joined the band on bass, as I moved to guitar. Milkweed added Marvin Jackson on lead guitar, to be replaced in that role by Pat Alger, who later would write four of Garth Brooks’ No. 1 singles.

In the summer of 1972 Milkweed recorded an album titled Midgets Stand Tall, featuring original folk, country, and rock tunes songs written primarily by JP and me. Kastner and Zamcheck returned to Atlanta to play on the album. After the final recording session, the band broke up.

I returned to Yale in the fall of 1972, and, with Kastner and Karen Eisner, founded Karen & the Pistons, a popular rhythm-and-blues band on the New England nightclub circuit. After six months, Daniel joined the band.

I earned a degree in drama and lettered in varsity golf while playing in Karen & the Pistons on weekends.

JP returned to his native New Jersey, where he taught music to Special Education students before embarking on an academic career that would lead to a PhD in developmental psychology. At a Karen & the Pistons performance in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1974, JP and I saw each other for the last time—until 40 more years had passed.

The summer of 2013 marked the beginning of a chain of circumstances that brought the two old friends together again. In the fall of 2013, I posted one of my songs from the Milkweed album, “Granma Country,” on iTunes.

JP had moved to Orcas Island in Washington State, and on Christmas night in 2013, he recalled the Milkweed days to a group of friends over dinner. One of those friends resolved to find something about the band on the Internet and located “Granma Country,” which also featured an album cover with a photo that included JP prominently displayed.

JP, who had just put the finishing touches on a CD of his own songs titled Early Lessons, tracked me down through online sources—not a difficult task, given the presence of thousands of stories from my career as a sportswriter—and invited me to come to Orcas to play with other local musicians at the CD release party.

That reunion proved the inspiration for a collection of new songs written by JP and me as the James Reid Band, as well as the impetus for the project that became Breakfast at Sunset, combining the new songs with several previously unrecorded Milkweed tunes from the 1970s.

Daniel and Kastner were recruited to play on the sessions at Bredouw’s Barn, a professional studio on Orcas Island, and both made important contributions to the ensemble, which also featured the formidable chops of multi-instrumentalist Martin Lund, who has worked with such diverse performers as Mel Torme, Isaac Hayes and Larry Carlton.

Breakfast at Sunset by the James Reid Band was released in late January and is available in CD and download form at CD Baby. A second album of original songs is in the works.

Several songs from the CD have already gotten radio airplay in such diverse markets as Nashville, Phoenix and St. Louis.

But the real story is the reunion of two close friends who had drifted apart and lost touch for more than 40 years, only to be brought back together by our love of music and an unlikely chain of events that led to our reconnection.  

More than anything else, the music on Breakfast at Sunset is an expression of our rekindled friendship.


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