After coming close to major music success with Goodness in the ’90s, Danny Newcomb started a family and moved to Vashon Island to be a farmer. Now he’s back in the game, fronting his own band.
IT’S NOT EXACTLY Madison Square Garden. Or a soccer stadium in Vladivostok, the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, the packed-to-the-walls Crocodile in Belltown, or any of the other cool places Danny Newcomb has plugged in his guitar.
But tonight, at the High Dive, a funky bar in Fremont that serves stiff drinks and live music, Newcomb’s rock ’n’ roll revival continues. The fit-looking, 49-year-old confidently commands the stage with his band, Danny Newcomb & the Sugarmakers, playing and singing songs from his new record. The old baseball cap has been replaced by a grown-up fedora, but otherwise he looks a lot like he did 20 years ago.
Back when he was going to be a rock star.
Newcomb played lead guitar on songs he co-wrote for Goodness, the ’90s Seattle band that signed with two major labels; opened for Pearl Jam, Oasis and Cheap Trick; seemed like a sure bet to make it big, but somehow didn’t. There’s a “Behind the Music” episode worth of reasons — clueless record-company executives, egos, sexism, too much beer, no hit single.
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We all have that great, undiscovered band we love. Goodness was mine. I saw them play probably 20 times. But bands give up, time moves on, we grow up, lives change. I was at the High Dive because I’d heard the guy who helped create that music was fronting his own band. I was curious. As I watched Newcomb play his heart out, I decided to stop thinking so much and just enjoy the show.
KEXP’s Kevin Cole calls “Masterwish,” Newcomb’s collection of 12 well-crafted, jangly-guitar, pop-rock tunes, “an instant classic,” comparing it to the best albums by the Posies and Matthew Sweet. Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, who grew up with Newcomb in Laurelhurst and has played in two bands with him — before and after Goodness — references the Replacements and Queen guitarist Brian May when he gushes about the record.
It’s past midnight, and the crowd at the High Dive has dwindled to almost nothing, most having already headed out into the drizzly fall night. “This song is about seizing the moment,” Newcomb says, introducing the title track to “Masterwish.” He sounds like he means it when he sings the catchy chorus:
I’ve been waiting for this moment
I’ve been waiting for my time
Now there’s nothing in between myself
and what I know is mine
Maybe this is Newcomb’s time, but when he closes the show, alone on stage, strumming his Gibson Les Paul and singing the dreamily beautiful “Luckiest Man,” barely a dozen fans remain.
“A little sparse,” he says afterward, in the backstage dressing room.
It’s a scene that raises questions about who makes it, who doesn’t and who gets to decide. What are we willing to sacrifice for fame? How do we define success, and happiness? Is there room in today’s fickle music business for Danny Newcomb, a Vashon Island pig farmer and family man who writes great songs?
NEWCOMB’S PAST and present collide a month later, when Goodness plays a reunion show at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, with his new band as the opening act. He walks onstage with the Sugarmakers and tells the sold-out crowd of 300 fans he’s glad to have a chance to let them hear what he’s doing now.
The highlight of the half-hour set is the rousing, hard-rocking finale, “Sundays.” The song’s genesis is the youthful bike-riding adventures of Newcomb and McCready, who believed if they pedaled far enough on Sunday, they might not have to go to school on Monday.
Then it’s time for Goodness, which is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of its inexplicably underrated first record with a high-energy show that reminds everyone why they cared so much about this band in the first place. Newcomb and singer Carrie Akre, who wrote almost all the songs together, display an easy, comfortable rapport. Akre tells the crowd the bandmates are all still great friends, even though they called it quits in 1999 after self-releasing their third record.
Near the end of the show, Akre jokingly introduces “Superwise,” the song many would consider the band’s best, as an acoustic number. So when it opens with a rip-roaring (and very electric) guitar riff by Newcomb, it confuses the large, affable, drunk man in front of me, who turns around to scream in my face, “Acoustic, my ass!”
Before I can reply, we’re swept toward the stage, middle-aged fans thrusting fingers into the air, singing along. The melody wraps us in a warm, nostalgic embrace, like the best hug you ever had, and it feels like the song is practically going to lift off, and we’re jumping, I mean, not as high as we used to, but we’re jumping, OK, we’re kind of rising up on our tiptoes, we’re completely lost in the music, and for a couple of beautiful, sweaty, perfect minutes, we’re partying like it’s 1995.
It makes me wonder, again, about the random nature of success in the music business. And why Goodness didn’t sell a million records.
“Goodness DID make it,” Newcomb insists, recalling Seattle’s hyped-up ’90s scene. “The thing about Goodness is that was back when people wanted to be a rock star, make a million dollars and never have to work again. I’m not interested in the not-working part. I like to work; I like to write songs. What I want to do is get paid enough to keep doing that.
“I want it to be a process. I’m not looking for a way out.”
I ask Akre if Goodness made it.
“No,” she says. “That would still be my job if we’d made it.”
Maybe it should be her job, but apparently not enough people agree, so she rides the Sounder train from her home in Tacoma to work as a senior project manager in Sodo. Tonight, though … tonight, she and Newcomb and their band are heroes again.
Newcomb cools off after the show with a frosty can of PBR, laughing and sharing stories with friends. He and his wife, Andrea Braganza, leave just in time to make the late ferry to Vashon. There’s a birthday party the next day for 8-year-old Isaac, the youngest of their three kids.
ARE THESE GEESE friendly?
“No, not really,” Newcomb says on a wet Sunday morning, carrying hay to feed the sheep on his Vashon farm of nearly nine acres. “This isn’t a petting zoo.”
Chickens, ducks and bees share space with 20 sheep and a few angry geese. Newcomb has raised Tamworth pigs, but not this winter. Steers were “a pain in the neck,” he says, so they’re gone. Alpacas and llamas roam the farms on each side.
The property includes an old barn, a sawdust-filled shop (Newcomb operated a cabinetmaking business for years and still knows his way around a circular saw), an Airstream trailer, a large vegetable garden and a pasture where the Sugarmakers filmed a video for one of their songs. In the back, with gorgeous views of the Olympic Mountains, stands the almost-finished house Newcomb has been building for two years, doing most of the work himself (the family moved in by the end of the year).
Danny and Andrea met when he was 18 and she was 16, got married in 1997 and moved from Ballard to Vashon in 2007 because Seattle was becoming too crowded.
“I have a good life,” Newcomb says. “For me, after getting done with major labels, I had to sort of reconnect and feel good about playing music, to have that optimism again. … Having a farm and living outside the city really let me ground myself out, and it still does.”
It looks a lot like a real day in the busy life of a real family. Isaac tries, with no luck, to talk someone into playing Monopoly. He gives up, and practices piano with his mom. Theo, 11, works on his Lego starship that had to be cleaned and reassembled after the family dog, Ringo, had urinated on it. Simone, a 14-year-old freshman who ran for the cross-country team at Vashon High School, sits with the cat, Miu, and reads a book. Later, after finding the correct shinguards and little-person socks, Braganza drives Isaac to his soccer game.
Braganza, who teaches at Carpe Diem Primary School on the island, has been supporting and encouraging her husband’s music career for years.
Newcomb’s morning routine usually includes at least an hour of writing songs and playing his guitar. He also writes poetry and short stories. “I told him it seemed like writing songs was easier,” Braganza says.
A few years ago, Newcomb decided even with so much going on, there was time to take another serious shot at music, leading to his scary, but exciting, “Wow, I’m really doing this again” moment. Maybe because of all he had in his life, it was the right time.
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“You see some successful, famous people give up things in their personal lives,” Newcomb says. “I never did that. … I’ve never been able to be creative without having a base. A lot of the reason I wrote this record was having that base. Without it, you don’t have perspective.”
Perspective, he’s got.
Isaac heard one of his dad’s new songs recently on the radio, probably KEXP, which has been a big supporter.
“He goes, ‘Oh, Daddy, are you famous?’ And I said … ‘No,’ ” Newcomb says. “I could be, but that’s not why I’m doing this. I want people to hear the songs. It’s not for the fame; that’s a byproduct. I think, ultimately, success for me is having an audience.”
NEWCOMB BEGAN WRITING songs when he was 11, two years after he talked his parents into buying him his first guitar by singing “America the Beautiful” in key. (“That took about a summer.”)
The songs were “terrible,” he says, but he kept at it, and he’d found a group of kids who shared his passion.
On the first day of school in 1977, former Cub Scouts Newcomb and McCready, by then 11-year-old guitar players, climbed onto their bus for the trip to Madrona Middle School. They spotted another sixth-grader, a kid from Windermere who looked like Scott Baio with perfectly feathered hair, named Rick Friel, the proud owner of a KISS lunchbox. All this, McCready says, “blew our minds.”
Soon, they had a band, with Rick’s little brother, Chris, on drums. They practiced almost every day, for hours, “louder than you can imagine,” McCready recalls, in the playroom of Dick and Sharon Friel, successful charity auctioneers and, it seems, incredibly understanding and supportive parents. Warrior became Shadow, which, after building a local following, decided in 1986 it was ready for Los Angeles. So they all moved into a dumpy apartment and paid to play gigs on the Sunset Strip. Except for Newcomb, who had quit and enrolled at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he earned a degree in 1991 in English and Creative Writing.
Several years and bands later, Newcomb and Rick Friel are together again, with Friel playing bass in the Sugarmakers. (The connections are many: Chris Friel played drums for Goodness; the Friel brothers, Newcomb and Akre played with McCready for four years in one of his side projects, the Rockfords, after Goodness split.)
“We never stopped being friends,” Rick Friel says of Newcomb.
McCready released the Sugarmakers songs “One Wish” and “Sundays” on vinyl on his record label, and passed out copies during a recent Pearl Jam tour of South America.
Ian Moore, a friend and supremely talented musician who lives on Vashon when he’s not touring, helped Newcomb record demos of the first songs. John Goodmanson, who worked with Newcomb during the Goodness years, produced and mixed the record. “He’s melodically and harmonically really intelligent,” Goodmanson says. “He’s been fitting songs to his voice, and he’s really found his groove.”
Newcomb has already written songs for a second album he says he’ll release later this year, and recently started work in the studio with Goodmanson. There’s a tour planned for April or May to England, where the first record is being distributed, and a possible trip to Australia after that.
Newcomb says he feels “a little bit like a late bloomer,” even though he’s been writing songs for nearly 40 years. He says the Sugarmakers record is “the best thing I’ve ever done.”
A FEW DAYS after the show at the Tractor, Newcomb tells me he enjoyed playing the old songs with Goodness. But it’s clear he’s not living in the past. He’s excited about the Sugarmakers, and their future.
He’s in a good mood, talking about upcoming shows and how grateful he is for the enthusiastic response to his music. A fan came up after the show to tell him the new songs were “like Goodness, but with a different voice.”
We chat about the big family gathering they just had for Isaac’s birthday party, and about coming up with the name Sugarmakers (it’s a nod to his love of pop music and farming, combining the ’60s and bees — “I wanted the music to be something sweet.”).
I ask him why he always wears a hat, and he tells me about an uncle who wore one. “That was my picture of being a man.” Plus, he says, “Hats make your head look bigger, and I figured people with bigger heads had a better chance of being famous.”
Now, it’s not fame he’s looking for. I wonder, with his new band — writing and singing his own songs — will this man who came so close with Goodness finally find success? And I realize, at his farm on Vashon Island, he already has.