The Toll performs during the Andyman-a-thon at the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion in late November. The author is in the foreground. Photo by Sam Fahmi.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years, five months and 19 days since we last played a full set live. There are so many things I’ve forgotten, especially the explosive shot of adrenaline as we’re about to begin . . . and, yet, it’s as familiar as if we performed just last night.
I’m playing bass with the Toll on the Lifestyles Communities Pavilion stage the night before Thanksgiving for the Andyman-a-Thon benefit. While Brad Circone pounds out the intro to “Word of Honor” on his guitar (the very thing he played one hung-over morning in New York that inspired the song), Brett Mayo gives us two clicks of the drumsticks and we all hit it hard as the lights flash. We’re on.
One last wish
A bit of history is probably in order. The Toll was a Columbus-based band that had two releases on Geffen Records: 1988’s The Price of Progression and 1991’s Sticks & Stones and Broken Bones, an allusion to our physically intense live shows. The group consisted of Brad on vocals and guitar, Brett on drums, Rick Silk on guitar and myself on bass. The label dropped us in 1992, along with as many as 50 other bands. We split up shortly after that and have gotten together just once—for a three-song performance in honor of legendary Columbus vocalist Ronald Koal, who died in 1993.
We all still live in Columbus, making our marks in different ways. Brad owns Circone + Associates, a marketing/consulting firm. Brett is the energy management director at Ohio State University. Rick is an attorney. And I’m a freelance photographer and the only one still in a band (when we can find the time to rehearse).
I’ve tried several times to reassemble the Toll for a show, but there never seemed to be a good enough reason to make it happen, even for the 20th anniversary of our first Geffen release.
Tragically, the death of our friend and CD101 program director Andy “Andyman” Davis on July 18 gave us the reason we needed.
Much has been written on the many contributions Andyman made both to our local music scene and to the many children’s charities that benefited from the annual Andyman-a-Thon, a 48-hour radio telethon for which he stayed awake throughout as host. A lesser-known fact is that one of the beneficiaries was Kids ’n Kamp, an organization founded by Brad’s mother, Beverly Circone.
As someone who has been part of the Andyman-a-Thon Christmas Morning Show (the name stuck even though the event was moved to the weekend before the holiday), there was no question the Toll would share the stage during that Thanksgiving eve show with such other Columbus bands and performers as Howlin’ Maggie (which hadn’t played together in 12 years), Watershed, Willie Phoenix, Earwig and the X-Rated Cowboys. The point was to raise money for the charities associated with the Andyman-a-Thon and, most importantly, the Andy Davis Memorial Fund.
A challenge? Absolutely. Plausible? Unquestionably. Worthwhile? Undeniably. Here’s my account (using old Toll songs as subheads, including the one at the top of this section).
Hear your brother calling
Our first priority was to find rehearsal space. In the early days, we practiced at Modern Music, a vending business owned by Nick Circone, Brad’s father. We wrote our earliest songs surrounded by jukeboxes and cigarette machines. Modern Music, however, had been sold while we were on tour supporting the first record. Ironically, the company that bought Modern Music currently is a client of Brad’s. A call was made and we were given permission to set up at Shaffer Services in Grandview, less than two blocks from the site of the old Modern Music. We again would be rehearsing in a warehouse filled with cigarette machines.
With a facility secured, the next challenge was finding gear. Our practice PA was long gone and the mixing board had been sold many years ago. Brett still had his drums, although only his hi-hat remained of his cymbals. Brad and I still had our guitars and amps. Rick, unfortunately, through several moves and a divorce, had only a few of his guitars and none of his amps. In the end, he used a vintage guitar amp of mine and two of Brad’s Les Pauls.
After phone calls to several local musicians, most notably guitarist/gear-head extraordinaire Jeff Zezech, who loaned us a PA and volunteered to serve as guitar tech, we gathered everything we needed. We also reacquired the services of the band’s first roadie, Craig Mathes (lovingly dubbed Cur for his road-dog mentality). Cur would enlist his 15-year-old son to help him keep things in order.
Our first practice was set, but we hit a snag. Rick got caught up in a room full of lawyers for a session that stretched from an expected few hours into a two-day marathon. So the rest of us practiced anyway. Between playing Rick’s guitar parts and showing Brad some of his, my bass sat untouched. It was a good refresher session for us, and between working on vocals and giving Brad a chance to sing at full volume, it was a solid foundation upon which to build.
Living in the valley of pain
Our next session was spent working on just a few songs to jog our memories without overloading them. The challenge here was using muscles in different ways than they’d been taxed in years. I was sure, having practiced my bass parts quite a bit, I would be fine. The first time we played “One Last Wish,” however, I realized I was wrong.
The adrenaline was flowing and we all played hard. The fingers on my right hand were blistering before we were halfway through the song. I could see each of us trying to loosen up a bit, stretching out between songs, and reminding ourselves physically of what we used to do instinctively.
Boys are bustin’ bricks
Naturally, the more we worked, the more solid we became. We all had things we were battling. For me, it was a little bass-drum turnaround before the chorus of “One Last Wish.” For Brad, it seemed to be either the high notes he sang in “Stand In Winter” or the never-the-same-way-twice progressions we’d used in “Standing On The Ledge” to transition from each chorus back into the verse. Rick was determined to play a solo from the studio version of “Stand In Winter,” which he’d never performed live.
We actually began to find new respect for the songs we’d written so many years ago, delighting in the rediscovery of nuances we’d added naturally.
We kept hard after it, sometimes running through the set almost three full times for several practices. It was crucial to maintain concentration; if our attention drifted even for a moment, our playing was sure to do the same. Four-hour rehearsals after 10-hour workdays were the standard. In all, we practiced not quite 20 times.
We also resumed our roles outside the rehearsal space. Brad, ever the visionary, constantly brainstormed about the best way to make the event worthy of what we believed it could be. He came up with dozens of ideas and launched the band’s first official web presence, thetollisdead.com. Brett took the role of production liaison, handling everything from stage plots to sound needs. He also got in touch with our original lighting guy, Milton Lenhart, who lives with his family in Youngstown; he promised to drive down with his son and run lights for us again. Former road manager Michael “Homie” McCuen came back as well to introduce us at the LC. I resumed my old job as the band’s PR guy, trying to get plenty of advance press.
The day of the show is still a bit of a blur. With fans-turned-friends traveling, in some cases, from both coasts, we were excited to see faces from many years ago as we stepped onstage as the Toll again. The entire show was filmed in multicamera HD (the equipment was donated and the film crew were volunteers), so there certainly will be time later to (over?) analyze the performances.
But to me, the greatest memory will be this: For the first time as a member of the Toll, I had the privilege of seeing the passion of my band mates—plus the joy of looking at my wife and sons as they sang more of Brad’s lyrics than I thought they knew. Watching my past, present and future sing the chorus to our closing song, “Jonathan Toledo,” was deeply moving.
It’s just a shame that I couldn’t have seen one other face, singing with his oldest son, as I’m sure he would have been doing. Andyman was everywhere in that room, but he wasn’t there.
Greg Bartram is a freelance photographer whose work occasionally appears in Columbus Monthly.