DANBURY — The venerable folk duo Aztec Two-Step, aka Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman, were often reviewed as having the “east coast sensibility,” “intellectual lyricism,” and supplying the “ethereal harmonies” of Simon & Garfunkel when critics got hold of their debut album in 1972. But over the course of their more than four decades performing together, the duo has also been the subject of a documentary entitled No Hit Wonder.
So why not just hang up their well-worn guitar straps and cruise into retirement entrenched in semi-obscurity?
According to Fowler, who connected for an engaging chat with The Newtown Bee ahead of the duo’s December 28 concert at the Danbury Palace theater, it’s because they still have many songs to sing, and even a few more to create together before ever considering anything resembling retirement.
Drawing their name from a poem by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Aztec Two-Step has always been satisfied holding court with fans and newcomers eager to discover the magic Fowler and Shulman work with their tight harmonies and inventive guitar licks — despite the fact that they never scored a huge charting hit song.
Perhaps the closest they ever came was the FM and college radio staple from the mid-70s, “The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty,” but even that number’s title is a little off putting for those who prefer their musical samplings a little less intellectually demanding and a lot more bland.
In 1987 their album, Living in America, received the New York Music Award for Best Folk Album and was named in Billboard’s year-end critic’s poll. Fowler and Shulman have been favorably reviewed in dozens of national and regional publications, and have appeared on numerous TV and radio shows, such as the David Letterman Show, the King Biscuit Flour Hour, and World Café Live.
Aztec Two-Step released their first live album, Highway Signs on the Prime-CD folk label in 1996 in celebration of their 25th anniversary. To commemorate their 30th anniversary in 2001, they released a double CD compellation entitled, Live & Rare and in 2005, released their career-defining Days of Horses.
On the occasion of their 40th anniversary in 2012, the duo released their last studio project, Cause & Effect (on Red Engine Records), a collection of songs of social significance produced by Paul Guzzone and featuring long-time bassist Fred Holman.
That album is a combination of reworked previously recorded songs and newly mined material.
Among the many points of conversation, Fowler said he hopes 2014 will see Aztec Two-Step back in the studio recording yet another package of brand new material, and continuing to tour thrilling audiences with selections from their deep but obscure catalog.
Newtown Bee: So what will the audience be in store for when you and your partner Neal show up December 28 for your set at the Danbury Palace?
Rex Fowler: We’re going to do our standards, and we are probably going to do “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” as well as a holiday tune inspired by Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” — a composition by yours truly called “Colorful Christmas.” It’s high time, don’t you think? We’ve had a “White Christmas” for the past hundred years, so it’s about time we had a colorful one. It’s a kind of reggae-country Christmas extravaganza. Christmas is a really colorful time of year with all the ornaments on the tree and everyone dressed up nice and fancy, so I thought it would be cool to do a little play on that in the spirit of “White Christmas.”
Bee: It’s funny, and maybe in keeping with your ‘band without a hit’ philosophy, that the tune has never made it onto the airwaves or onto any holiday song parody compilations. Has it been in circulation very long?
Fowler: Honestly, it’s been around since the mid-80s. But we only released it on kind of a vanity record we put out once as sort of a tongue in cheek holiday album like the Beatles used to do — just a little something special for their fan base. This was back in the day when we’d still press up actual vinyl. We probably pressed up a hundred or so and gave them out as gifts to our closest fans. I think the hardcore fans will enjoy it. And we only bring it out once a year.
Bee: So I guess it’s just your own Aztec Two-Step tradition to trot out a few holiday cover songs in your set between Thanksgiving and New Year’s?
Fowler: Well, Neal and I have been doing a classic duo show for awhile, so for the Danbury set we’ll sprinkle in some Simon & Garfunkel and Every Brothers. It’s so much fun, and they are iconic artists and songs. It kind of breaks things up a little from doing just songs of our own.
Bee: And there is a wealth of material you could draw on just from your own catalog, right?
Fowler: It’s been 42 years, my Lord. It’s impossible for us to work in all the songs we want to play in any single concert, and I’m sure some of the fans want to hear. But we pretty much do cover the entire time span of our career at this point.
Bee: At what point do you remember looking at each other and actually acknowledging that Aztec Two-Step is not only something of a musical institution, but also here to stay?
Rex Fowler: I think the first time it really hit us was on our 15th anniversary. We had a big to-do with CPTV with a big show that was played and aired out of Hartford. It included guests like David Bromberg and Livingston Taylor, Jesse Winchester and Jonathan Edwards. That was pretty important because at that point the ‘70s were over and we were settling into the doldrums of the ‘80s. It felt good to validate 15 years together, which seemed like a lifetime at that point.
The next benchmark was our 25th anniversary. We had taken about six months off in 1995. It just felt like we needed a break, but we had one gig on the books for that May. Around the same time, we had a guy interested in producing a live album for us, because we had never done one in all those years of playing out. It was really nice to be asked, and we felt our live show was always indicative of what we thought we were really supposed to sound like. It kind of brought us back together, and we’ve been playing together regularly ever since – more than 17 years since that point.
Bee: I guess one of the hardest things to face as you look back on more than 40 years together, are the friends and artists who invited you to open for them who have passed on. I’m talking about folks like Earl Scruggs, Warren Zevon, Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, Richie Havens, Phoebe Snow… and the list goes on.
Fowler: You’re right about that. And don’t forget Harry Chapin. Harry was the first artist who took us out because we were labelmates on Elektra. We probably did 50 or more shows with him over the years. His death was a big loss.
Bee: I do take note that Aztec Two-Step still performs a healthy number of benefits. Does that come from some of the old Harry Chapin spirit of philanthropy that rubbed off during those early years?
Fowler: Harry literally did every other concert as a benefit of one kind or another. I was just listening to the ‘Why Hunger?’ radio-thon, and they were talking about how Harry would donate the money from every other concert typically to hunger related causes. And that’s quite extraordinary, I don’t know of any other artist who has approached that level of dedicated giving. And at the time, he was still a struggling artist with four children and a full band he had to help support.
Neal and I really can’t afford to do that much, but we do what we can — and I also do some fundraising for Why Hunger with my side project The Nutopians. We do what we can do — we give free concert tickets to folks who are having a hard time. It’s just a small gesture, or to throw a CD in the mail to help lift somebody’s spirits a bit.
Bee: So what’s in the cards for Aztec Two-Step in the New Year?
Fowler: I hope we can start a new original studio record. We put out Cause & Effect for our 40th anniversary. It was a remake of a collection of our songs that had topical or social significance and it represented something monumental for us as a duo. We’ve managed to get through some difficult times, like any good marriage or partnership does, and we’ve come out the other side.
It’s been worth the struggle, and don’t get me wrong, it’s been a joyous journey despite the difficult moments. But here we are and we made one of the best records with Cause & Effect, and now it’s time to make anew record. I’ll drag Neal in kicking and screaming and we’ll get it out.
Learn more about the duo at AztecTwoStep.com. Aztec Two-Step will be at The Danbury Palace, 165 Main Street in Danbury, on Saturday, December 28. Showtime is 8 pm. Buy tickets online by visiting: thepalacedanbury.com.