Veteran rocker brings big sound to Novato fair
Live: Eric Martin and his band will play at 3:15 p.m. June 11 at the Novato Festival of Art, Wine & Music. Provided by Denise Martin
Eric Martin was in line at his local San Rafael supermarket the other day buying milk for his twin 18-month-old sons. As the rock star/father stood there with his milk, diapers and Binkies, he heard the 1991 No. 1 hit song "To Be With You" by the band Mr. Big playing over the intercom.
"I'm looking around and I'm seeing people singing the words and getting them wrong," says Martin, with a chuckle.
He certainly should know, because Mr. Big was Martin's band and he wrote most of their hits, including that one.
"I made good a long time ago and I'm still making good," he says.
Martin, 47, really has made it good. He has been to the mountaintop of rock stardom, had a hit single, toured the world many times, sold more than a million records and done the MTV thing. Today, he is back where he started - fronting a band bearing his name and playing the kind of music he enjoys.
"I've come full circle," Martin says.
Martin and his wife of four years, Denise, played together in the Eric Martin Band for a couple of years. But they decided that it probably wasn't in the their best marital interests.
"We were rehearsing together, living together and playing together," Denise Martin says. "Something had to give."
"Drummers don't like to take direction from singers," she adds. "And even less from husbands."
Denise Martin was no nepotistic hire - she had played drums in the local band Yikes and recorded CDs with Susan Zelinsky and Merle Saunders. Currently, she splits time as a mother, Martin's part-time manager and playing drums with San Francisco singer/songwriter Kiff Gallagher.
"We're balancing parenthood and our rock bands," Eric Martin says.
Martin and his bandmates will appear June 11 at the Novato Festival of Art, Wine & Music. The two-day festival will feature Commander Cody, Junior Brown, American Drag, AC/Dshe, Asher & Paige, Solid Air, Swing Set, Borderline, Zoo Station and several local high school rock bands. In addition to the live music, downtown streets will be lined with arts and crafts tents and vendors serving gourmet treats, wine and beer.
Festival entertainment coordinator Dennis Hagerty has been booking music for the event since 1987. "I like to mix it up and not be predictable," he says. Past acts have included Lisa Loeb, Al Stewart, Jesse Colin Young, Greg Kihn, Marshall Crenshaw and Train.
"This year rocks more," Hagerty says. "Junior Brown (might be better known) for country music but he's also a smokin' guitarist."
American Drag, for instance, is straight-ahead rock with political overtones and some Marin ties: Singer/guitarist Monroe Grisman of Novato is the son of bluegrass mandolin legend David Grisman, a former Marin resident. For fans of "unplugged" music, three women featured in a March IJ Weekend story about "Marin's Songbirds" - Victoria George, Larkin Gayl and Amie Penwell - will be joined by San Marin High graduate Drew Gasparini in special acoustic sets June 10 starting at 11:45 a.m. (Gasparini will celebrate the release of his new CD with a show Friday at San Marin that will raise funds for the school's music program; log onto http://www.drewgasparini.com/ to learn more).
In the past Hagerty has liked to combine national touring acts with well-known local performers, and with Eric Martin he gets both.
Martin started his singing career in the late 1970s fronting the band 415 (named after Marin's area code). "We actually lived in Novato in a band house," he says.
The band opened for 1980s arena-rock heavyweights such as Billy Squire, Molly Hatchet, Journey and Foreigner. Eventually, 415 was signed to Elektra/Asylum records and its manager, rock svengali Herbie Herbert (who put Steve Perry in Journey and later managed Mr. Big) re-christened 415 as the Eric Martin Band.
"I got so much crap for a whole year from my band for that," Martin says.
The band performed for a couple of years before Martin returned to his solo career.
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He wrote a song with Neal Schon of Journey and, as luck would have it, a copy of that song found its way into the hands of Mike Varney, a Novato record producer and owner of Shrapnel Records.
"Eric was still headed in the pop direction," Varney says. "I knew Eric to be one of the best hard-rock vocalists in the world, even though this wasn't his focus at the time, I called him and suggested the idea of him putting together a band with Billy (Sheehan) and Paul (Gilbert)."
"Varney had the Midas touch," Martin says.
Sheehan, a bass player who played with David Lee Roth's band, convinced Martin to forget his solo career and focus on a band. It turned out to be the big break Martin needed. By 1988, Martin, Sheehan, Gilbert and Pat Torpey had formed the "supergroup" Mr. Big. Its second album, 1991's "Lean into It" yielded the hit "To Be With You," which reached the top of the charts in 12 countries. Mr. Big followed that success with six studio albums and six live CDs. All combined, its worldwide sales have topped the 7 million mark.
"Mr. Big was a great experience in my life," Martin says. "Our passports were filled with stamps. Because of the campaigning that I did with Mr. Big in Japan, it opened doors for me to play in Japan as a solo artist, too."
By 2002, the group, succumbing to bureaucratic regulations and communication breakdowns, did its "Farewell Tour."
While Mr. Big was winding down, Martin wrote and recorded several solo CDs, including "Pure," which covered his hits in an unplugged acoustic form, a format he revived recently at Mill Valley's Sweetwater Saloon. In early 2004, he recorded his most recent solo release "Destroy All Monsters."
Martin, though, was not quite done with the supergroup format. In late 2004, he joined a band fronted by Tak Matsumoto, a guitarist whose records have sold a combined 80 million copies in Japan.
"(Tak) wanted to have an American rock feel for his solo album," Martin says. With bassist and Sonoma resident Jack Blades (of Night Ranger fame) and drummer Chris Frasier (formerly with Steve Vai and Eddie Money), they formed the Tak Matsumoto Group or TMG.
"It was just a great experience," Martin says. "We had so much fun creating that record. We toured Japan, sold out shows, and the album went platinum."
Now, Martin has returned to his roots. In addition to playing with the new Eric Martin Band, he recently joined his former 415 band members for a reunion show at Petaluma's Mystic Theater. He also wrote and recorded a song for guitar legend Ronnie Montrose's upcoming CD, "10x10," a combination effort of Montrose's favorite singers that is due out later this year. There are nine other singers on the record, including longtime Marin resident Sammy Hagar and former Gamma and Robin Trower lead vocalist Davey Pattison of Novato.
"I really like what I'm doing now," Martin says. "I know that sounds clichŽd but I like singing and I like performing. I'm not in a hurry anymore, I'm pretty satisfied with where I'm at right now."
He is looking forward to playing the Novato festival. He says he has been to it several times to see bands play and is relishing the opportunity to appear in front of a hometown crowd. "It was kind of an honor for me to be asked," he says.
Starting at 3:15 p.m. June 11, Martin will be on stage with bassist Mark Chole, guitarist Mark Holley and drummer Matt Isola, who is temporarily filling in for Gigi Gonaway.
"There's no place like home," Martin says.