Watching Bill Gage perform with his band, BILL, is an eye-opening experience. You go in not knowing what to expect, maybe even a little nervous on behalf of everyone involved — the crowd, the band, yourself. But then you’re witness to a sizzling and raw hard-rock display, and your reservations vanish.
VIDEO: BILL, "Steve Pepper"
Gage doesn’t so much sing songs as tear through them, his vocals occasionally sounding as if they’re coming from someone twice his size. As he sings “Big Foot,” a track off of the band’s second and most recent album, Bat Man, Gage bellows the title line over and over, all the while pacing back and forth like some caged beast, swaying to the ominous, industrial-ish score. You think for sure his voice is going to give out any moment, but it never does. It’s magnificent.
“I had a boss once who’d seen Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, James Brown,” notes Gage’s older brother, John Gage, who plays guitar, among other things, for BILL (the band, he insists, is spelled in all capital letters). “So I was playing a tape of Bill, and he had just walked into the place where we worked, and he says, ‘Who is that — Muddy Waters?’ And I was, like, here is a guy who has seen James Brown, and he’s saying Bill sounds like this 40-year-old black man.”
Bill isn’t Muddy Waters, obviously, and he isn’t James Brown, either. But he is a rock-and-roll trailblazer in one respect: though he is an exuberant performer and a natural rock vocalist, Bill has Down syndrome.
A pretty good time
I’m sitting with most of the band in the TV room of BILL guitarist Greg Ansin’s spacious two-story South End apartment. Ansin, Bill and John, drummer Daren Follower, and bassist Gaylen Moore (John’s fiancée) have recently finished taking some publicity shots. Instruments are scattered throughout the apartment. The band (minus guitarist Eric Morin, who’s not around today) will be playing together after I leave. Bill seems very excited about this.
As for our conversation . . . it’s odd, even by rock-band-interview standards. John had warned me by e-mail that his brother isn’t “much for small talk and storytelling (outside of some of his songs).” John, on the other hand, loves to talk. Which is fine. Because nobody knows BILL better than John, who has collaborated with his brother on the project for more than 20 years.
According to John, the brothers — who, at 46 and 42, are no youngsters — each developed an interest in the arts in the late ’70s while growing up in Laconia, New Hampshire. “You’d go by Bill’s room and it would sound like there’s a couple of TV shows going on at the same time. He’s performing little skits and doing characters back and forth, and he’s got music playing.
“So there I was, this lonely teenager, without a circle of friends. I was like, ‘Wow that sounds like he’s having a pretty good time in there.’ ”