Straighten up with crooked finger
Three acquaintances have found a way to bring together their passion for music, with the help of battered hands, a pile of shoes and a wife’s intimidating warning.
The power-acoustic trio Crooked Finger may have made its start in Seaford, but as percussionist Aaron Lyons said, “We’re just small-town boys with high hopes and big dreams.”
Fronted by Jason Lee and Josh “Rizzo” Rose, the band has been stretching their name throughout Delaware, hoping to spread their appreciation and passion for music, as well as their name.
After officially playing under the name “Crooked Finger” for two years to the day, today, Nov. 21, the band will put on an anniversary performance tonight at Marina’s Bar in Seaford, the site of the band’s first show. Lee’s solo acoustic gigs began in May of 2005 at Marina’s which, at the time, ran under the name Skipjack’s.
“There were nights when the bar only had four or five people in it,” Lee said, “but it’s where everything started.”
For most of their lives, a slight age gap prevented Lee and Lyons from becoming more than acquaintances, though both their fathers served as Seaford police officers.
“We had some years between us,” said Lee of himself and Aaron Lyons, “but we still knew each other growing up.”
After high school, the two went about their own lives. Lee enlisted in the Marine Corps for eight years, while Lyons remained in the area.
After an acoustic show a few years back — nearly 12 years since they had last seen each other — their paths crossed again, back at Marina’s. Lee was settled back in the area, performing another acoustic show.
“I thought it was him,” said Lyons, “so I went up to him during a break. Sure enough, it was, and we got to talking. I told him about a band I had played in and he asked me to come jam out with him at one of his shows.”
Two brief practice sessions were all the duo needed, Lee supplying lead vocals and acoustic guitar, with Lyons on percussion, which originated with nothing but his conga drums.
Shortly thereafter, the two picked up Rose, an employee, at the time, at B&B Music and Sound in Camden, Md. Lee had frequented the music store for instruments and equipments.
“I was demoing some stuff in the sound room,” Lee recalled, “and [Rose] started singing along with me. It turned out he was into the same music, and he said he played guitar and harmonica. I had been playing some Neil Young and Tom Petty songs, ones that could really use a harmonica in them.”
Lee invited Rose to join them at Marina’s for another show, and as they say, the rest is history.
“Everything is basic” explained Lee of the band’s sound. “We don’t have a bass. We don’t use a full drum set. We don’t have a set of backing vocals. We’re stripped down to nothing, and putting out sound as big as some of these electric bands.”
At most performances, Lyons’ drum set consists of nothing more than a floor tom, snare, crash cymbal and congas. Passion has trumped pain for Lyons on a number of occasions, where, even through taped fingers, he would develop sores, blisters and cuts on his hands while playing.
“I can really get into the performances,” he said. “I’m still learning which percussion instruments work with which songs.”
Right from the start, the band was clicking, with each member working rhythmically with the other two.
“It got to the point where we started saying, ‘Hey, we could do this for a while,’” said Lyons. “It was fun, and we were actually pretty good at it.”
“We’d get more and more songs to the point where we could last through a four-hour show,” Lee added.
Crooked Finger’s first official booking came right at Marina’s, as an opening gig for Baltimore-based rock band ICU. Until then, the three had still played under the name Jason Lee Band.
“I didn’t want to think of myself as being that arrogant,” Lee said. “We had kicked around a lot of names.”
Before long, they found their title, thanks to a gesture from a high school friend’s wife, who warned of her irritation through a slightly bent index — yes, index — finger.
“When I wasn’t supposed to be on my cell phone, or if I was doing something wrong, she’d say, ‘Jason!’” Lee recalled, motioning the hand gesture. “If you got the crooked finger, you knew you were in trouble. That’s when you back off.”
“A lot of people put their own interpretation on it, and think it means something else,” said Lyons, “but that’s all it really is, but we let people think what they want.”
The band mates admit that the circumstances have been a little sudden and almost coincidental, but nonetheless, they are grateful for the result.
“This has all been sort of a fluke thing,” said Lee. “I decided to come back to Delaware after the Marine Corps, and [Lyons] happened to be here. [Rose] just happened to be working at the music store I always stopped in. I could have had any other salesperson, and may have never met him at all.”
Lyons pays much respect to the venue that helped initiate it all.
“We owe a lot of everything falling in place to Marina’s,” he said. “This place has really brought us together and given us the chance to go out there and do what we love.”
Through performances, the band has acquired a multitude of dedicated fans, who refer to themselves as “The Crooked Nation,” a collection of listeners, 15 to 20 people deep, who attend each show, singing along with every song, including the band’s originals.
“They really get into it,” said Lee. “There’s been some drama, but they put just as much heart into our shows as we do. They’re really great.”
“Every show we play,” said Lyons, “no matter where we are, they’re going to be there.”
The fans’ response is perhaps the most motivational influence the band recognizes at their shows.
“When we’re up there on stage having fun, with sweat pouring down our faces,” said Lee, “I can look out at the crowd, and I see everyone, singing and sweating just as much as we are. That’s an awesome feeling. We’ve even had nights where people made a huge pile of their shoes because their feet were so hot and sweaty. That’s when you know people are really getting into it.”
“Our band is very audience participation-oriented,” said Rose. “They’re always very energizing, and they’re the ones that keep it going.”
“I find that it doesn’t matter who and how many people I’m performing for,” said Lee, “if they’re getting into the music and enjoying their time, I’m going to like it that much more.”
Despite the commitment the band requires, Lee is convinced that his priorities are straight.
“With everything going the way it is,” he said, “we want to keep everything fun and do it for the love of music. If you happen to make a little scratch in your pocket, that’s great. You can pay the bills, pay for the gas that got you there. You don’t do this to not make it big. People don’t put heart and soul, money, energy and time to not have something come out of it. But it has to be first and foremost about the music. That’s what brings the people together.”
“We’re not trying to break any land-speed records with our music,” said Lyons, “but we are one of the most original bands in this area.”
Accumulating a repertoire has been more or less an experiment for the band, who have been known to belt out the classics, from names like Lynard Skynard, Pearl Jam, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, to more modern rock groups, such as Deftones and Tool.
“We like to steer into the modern rock a little more,” said Lee. “That way, when we do go back to the classics, it’s still fresh and not overplayed.”
In any performance, it’s not uncommon to hear Crooked Finger sample several genres, from rock to country, to hip-hop or pop.
“We have a little bit of everything,” said Rose. “At each performance, we like to throw a curveball at the audience, but we’ll cater to anyone out there. We’re definitely a band that flies by the seat of our pants.”
“I love taking a song that someone out there absolutely loves,” said Lyons, “and putting a spin on it so we can play with what we’ve got. We put our own stamp on these cover songs.”
“We’ll strip the song down,” added Lee, “and build on it with what we have. That’s a way that we can sort of make it our own. I want people to hear us and say, ‘I recognize that song, but I really like the way they did it.’”
“Some of our stuff is even psychedelic,” said Lyons. “We do anything that is going to help bring our sound out.”
The trio spends hours assembling some of their own work, though sometimes, it develops when they least expect it.
“We’ll be setting up for sound check,” said Rose, “and all of a sudden, we’ll catch a beat and start going with it, and it will sound really good. The tricky part is remembering later what we were doing.”
The three sometimes team up with DJ Brandon Paul, who assists with much of the band’s soundboard and set list.
“He’s been a big help,” said Lee, “and it allows us to stretch our songs into other areas. We picked him up from the start, and he’s done a great job. He’s got a lot of talent, too.”
Still striving to meet family and occupational commitments, the three musicians find themselves working around tight schedules to accommodate performances. Rose, who lives with his wife and 18-month-old daughter in Dover, has only rare opportunities to meet up with the two Seaford residents, but they continue pressing on — and it’s paying off.
Crooked Finger has earned themselves the title of official house band of “Whiskey and JJ in the Morning” on radio station 96 Rock.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Lee. “We’re an acoustic band, and we’re getting this recognition on a rock station. They’ve been really supportive. People don’t realize the relationship we have with them and what they’ve done for our band.”
Crooked Finger has opened for a multitude of different bands, including local favorites Lowercase Blues and Randy Lee Ashcraft, and D.C. reggae band Third Eye. They’ve performed at the Dewey Beach Music Festival and the Seaford Summer Music, formerly the Mid-Atlantic Music Festival. They also performed at this year’s Apple Scrapple Festival.
While getting their name out there is always nice, it’s not necessarily what the guys steer for when they play. “We’ve done some private shows, but we’re really big on benefits,” said Lyons. “We’ve raised money through shows for multiple sclerosis and cancer.”
“If we can get into a benefit show,” said Lee, “we’ll do it. It’s a real team effort every time.”
On Dec. 15, Crooked Finger plans to headline the First Annual Revolution Entertainment Toys for Tots Charity Bash at Marina’s.
And since the move out toward the beach venues, Crooked Finger has enjoyed a very receptive and lively crowd.
“We like the beaches a lot,” said Lee. “One of my goals is to headline at a place like Bottle and Cork [in Dewey]. If you can put on a show in there, then you’ve pretty much made it in Delaware.”
He said he hopes to eventually make his way with the band to venues in Wilmington, which could potentially yield gigs in Baltimore and Annapolis. “For now, we’re just going county to county,” he said. “We’ll work our way up.”
Following the band’s performance tonight, Wednesday, Nov 21, at Marina’s, they will take their show to Bethany Beach this weekend, playing at Chalkboard Tavern and Grill in the Sea Colony Marketplace on Saturday, Nov. 24 at 9 p.m., their second time at the restaurant.
For more information about the band, including recordings of their original songs and schedules for other upcoming performances, visit their Web site at www.myspace.com/crookedfingermusic.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Ryan Saxton works part-time at the Chalkboard Tavern and Grill.