You've got to hand it to Jeffrey Evans. Aside from all the music he's made over the years, he's credited with introducing the White Stripes to Sympathy for the Record Industry (and, hence, to the world). Then he did the same for Mr. Airplane Man. Although the Boston duo's first effort was self-released, Sympathy would handle their subsequent recordings. Granted, MAM would stand out in any crowd, even without the assistance of an Evans, a Long Gone John, or the late Mark Sandman (Morphine), who became a fan after hearing them on the streets in 1998. And, to be sure, there are other duos who've been around as long, like the Stripes, but MAM features two women: Margaret Garrett (guitar, vocals) and Tara McManus (drums), and yet they sound nothing like such female duos as the Softies. Their punk-blues hybrid has more in common with the garagey sounds Detroit trio the Gories were laying down in the '90s. Then there's their name, which confuses the issue altogether, but it's really just a tribute to Howlin' Wolf, who once drafted a ditty called "Mr. Airplane Man."
It was, in fact, a shared obsession with Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) that inspired the band's formation. After living on opposite coasts for some time, the friends reunited in Boston in 1995, where they locked themselves up in a basement for a year and absorbed the sounds of the Delta blues as much as any two people can. With that, they hit the streets, honing their chops by playing for rent on the sidewalks of Cambridge -- Garrett with an electric guitar and battery-powered amp and McManus with her trusty five-gallon drum. Sandman wasn't the only Bostonian to take notice. In 1999, they were voted Best New Local Act by readers of the Boston Phoenix.
Then they went on tour with Sandman, who helped record their first album, which was released that year and led to more touring. While in Memphis, a chance encounter in a local diner would result in their next release. Garrett had recently become converted to the musical gospel of Monsieur Evans' '68 Comeback. By coincidence, they met a gent who knew the man, and he arranged for an introduction. The Boston crew hit it off with the Memphis gang and an alliance was formed. They continued on to New Orleans for a gig and, upon their return, M. Evans was set to do some recording. Their first Sympathy release was the single, "Johnny Johnny," which was followed by a full-length in March of 2001. Red Lite was like a history of MAM as it included the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," a set list staple since their days in Central Square, along with other longtime favorites like Jessie May Hemphill's "Black Cat Bone." Next, they hit the road with the White Stripes and opened for the Strokes, as well as local acts DMZ and the Lyres, both featuring the legendary Jeff "Monoman" Conolly.
Recorded in Detroit with Jim Diamond (the White Stripes) and mixed in Memphis with Doug Easley and Greg "Oblivian" Cartwright, Moanin' was released in September of 2002, and it's where MAM really hit their stride. Highlights of the well-received platter, which -- like the band -- took its name from a Wolf classic, included the haunting spiritual, "Jesus on the Mainline" and the blissful girl group pop of "Not Livin' at All" (penned after repeated listens to the Lyres' "Help You Ann"). Mr. Airplane Man then took their show across the country, during which time they tried out new material set for inclusion on their next recording. ~ Kathleen C. Fennessy