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Worldly travelers

Dragonfly and the many sides of Brother Cleve
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  November 13, 2006

COSMOPOLITES: Singh (left) found a perfect foil for Dragonfly in the versatile Cleve (third from left).

He’s had drinks with Tom Waits and hung with Tom Petty, and he played keyboards in two of Boston’s more successful bands: the Del Fuegos and Combustible Edison. And that’s just some of what Brother Cleve has achieved over the course of two-plus decades. Behind the scenes, he’s scored themes for Cinemax, composed a piece for the Texas Rangers, and written music for interactive exhibits at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. More recently, though, Brother Cleve has become something of an international presence, thanks to an eclectic band he plays keyboards in called Dragonfly and to an increasingly successful career as a DJ.

Dragonfly was formed by Miki “Jeet” Singh, an MIT graduate who helped found a software company in 1991 and cashed in big-time on the tech boom. The son of an Indian diplomat, Singh had been in a band in college and was looking to get back into music when he met Cleve. He hooked up with local guitarist Peter Parcek, at first to help him sharpen his guitar skills and then as a part of Dragonfly. In 2001, he brought Cleve aboard, first to do house remixes of some of the songs he’d written — songs that blend funk, rock, and pop with Indian and other exotic world-music strains. He flew Cleve down to a studio he’d built in a house he’d bought on the island of St. Barts. And before long, he realized he’d found a keyboard player with the right mind set for Dragonfly.

“These guys are not into it for ego,” he explained before a performance by Dragonfly at the Paradise Lounge last month to celebrate the release of their second album, the self-released Blind (Redstar). “They’re more interested in having an identity than being famous — more interested in having a voice that’s distinguished. The trust factor is high. We are like family.”

Cleve echoes the “family” line: “We spend a lot of time under the same roof.” It doesn’t hurt that that roof just happens to be on a tropical island. But Cleve was also drawn to the musical freedom offered by Dragonfly. “I get to get away with murder and bring all sorts of elements into the music. They work with loose chordal structures and I get to come in and co-produce and mold stuff electronically.”

Singh first met Cleve (born Robert Toomey) at Mantra, a Boston club where Cleve was DJing. It wasn’t long before he became aware of Cleve’s encyclopædic knowledge of music, a knowledge that ranges from ’60s soundtracks to electric jazz, Philly soul, and funk, punk to roots rock, reggae to Bollywood pop, and just about everything else. Next year, Cleve is planning to release Bombay Disco, a compilation of, well, Indian disco tracks. Singh: “He is really one of the most interesting cats I’ve ever met. He’s obsessively interested in things as a musicologist, a barman, a Bollywood disco freak. Here’s a Boston Irish guy with a more open view of people and the world than many I have met who you would expect to have an open attitude but don’t.”

Dragonfly cut their teeth not in the Boston club scene but overseas, in Singh’s native India, where among other things they opened for Bryan Adams in front of a crowd of 40,000. So Cleve, who like the rest of the band is on retainer, knows that he could be on the move at any time. In the meantime he’s keeping himself busy DJing around town. He has a regular Saturday-night gig at Devlin’s in Brighton, and when I meet up with him at Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square, he’s on his way to the Western Front in Cambridge to spin South Asian music. At Devlin’s, he caters to the crowd’s taste for classic ’80s hits. He figures he has more than a million songs at his disposal, and he’ll bring around 80 vinyl albums to a basic 90-minute gig.

“When I get interested in something, I just run with it,” he explains. That’s a bit of an understatement for a guy who’s made a living at music for a quarter-century. He was in the 1977 incarnation of Fox Pass, what he describes as “one of those bands getting away from those 10-minute arena-rock opuses.” He played punk funk with the Suede Cowboys, joke rock with the Swinging Erudites, R&B with Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, C&W with the Wheelers & Dealers, and gritty roots rock with the Dawgs.

The Brother Cleve moniker came courtesy of DJ Tony V, who had him play a radio character who was in Cleve’s words “a cross between a black party comedian and a gospel preacher.” This Brother Cleve took to the airwaves on WTBS FM (now WMBR). The name stuck.

It was through touring with the Del Fuegos from 1985 to 1988 that Cleve got his first taste of the rock-and-roll high life. They opened for Tom Petty, INXS, and ZZ Top. “The glory years,” he jokes, recalling gigs at arenas and sheds. “Tour bus, the rock-star life, hung out with Little Richard . . . ”

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Worldly travelers
this guy Bro cleve is a keyboard wizard & a musical genius.....dont miss him djing or in the group "dragonflyband",which for my money,is the next best thing coming out of india! have been warned!!!!
By emogician on 02/04/2008 at 6:23:59

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