Singer-songwriter Jeff Thompson stands poised for big things in Asheville. In less than a year, he’s generated a sizable following through his weekly gigs at 5 Walnut and is preparing to introduce his BEEG Band at a much larger local venue, The Grey Eagle on Friday, March 28. The concert will not only showcase new arrangements of Thompson’s material and feature a stellar backing band, it will inaugurate a Kickstarter campaign for a recording project, one that will capture his band’s new directions.
While this is a new iteration for the musician, Thompson is no stranger to the Asheville scene. A decade ago, in fact, he was staple in local singer-songwriter circles. Seven years ago he was better known as folk singer Jeffrey Hyde Thompson. Then he moved to Boulder, Colo., in ’07 to pursue graduate studies at Naropa Institute, where he earned a master’s in transpersonal counseling psychology. After graduating, he worked as a psychotherapist in the Rocky Mountains and hung up his identity as a singer-songwriter.
In 2011, Thompson followed a job back to Asheville, but he shied away from returning to music. Then, about 18 months ago a realization dawned on him: “I was living a life not congruent with my heart,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want to get up and do every morning?’ And the answer was music and writing.” He decided to quit his job and dedicate his days to those passions — and it’s been paying off.
At the heart of Thompson’s new direction is the desire to be intentionally collaborative. “Solo performance has taken a major back seat for me lately,” he says. “When I’m playing solo, it’s very difficult to really surprise myself. One of the marvelous things about working with the brilliantly creative crew that I have backing me up is that they surprise me all the time. They take songs I’ve written in directions I never would have dreamed of.”
In the last six months, Thompson put together a band with pianist Aaron Price, bassist Michael Hynes and drummer James Kylen. He has also worked with the pianist and arranger Lenny Pettinelli, who pushed Thompson to realize bigger sounds for his songs. It was the addition of lead guitarist Duane Simpson that concretized the vision for BEEG Band: “There are three-part vocal harmonies, lush keyboard parts, bass and drum heavy grooves,” Thompson says of the richly textured result. “Really, what makes the sound ‘BEEG’ here is not so much the specifics of the instrumentation but the caliber of musicians I'm working with and the power of the arrangements.”
Partnering with Price has been especially inspiring. The pair developed a musical relationship that makes composition a spontaneous process. “Aaron and I share a pop sensibility, but he has more options, harmonically,” says Thompson. In his notebooks, Thompson accumulated three albums worth of lyrics, which he and Price sometimes page through to create new songs. “I sing parts of songs that aren’t fully realized yet, improvising melodies, and Aaron listens to me and plays these terrific chords underneath,” says Thompson. “He can follow and anticipate my melodies and just make up chord progressions.”
Thompson’s intellectual development over the past decade, as well as his continued interest in stage acting and improv theory, have also shaped new considerations of musical performance. He seems to intuit what many perceive as contradiction: “To perform authentically, you’ve got to get into character,” he says. Inspired by Joni Mitchell’s idea that all art is artifice, Thompson points out that a performer rarely feels the full range of emotional experiences when initially composing a song. He emphasizes that performers perform in order to “genuinely feel the feeling of a song,” a realization that has affected his entire approach to playing shows. He says that he wants his concerts to be art from beginning to end, with no wasted moments, as when he uses spoken-word poetry between songs. Ultimately, Thompson says, “I want to create a shared experience that is qualitatively different from ordinary life. I want [the show] to inspire people.”
Art and art-making have taken on new significance, due in part to Thompson’s musical hiatus. “Lyrically and musically, I'd like to think my tunes have greater maturity, depth and complexity than they had during my previous Asheville incarnation,” he says. “I'd like to think that the quality of the overall musicianship in the band is at such a high level because I've gotten much better at what I do.”
what: Jeff Thompson’s BEEG Band
where: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
when: Friday, March 28, at 8 p.m.
$12 advance/$15 day of show