One year ago, Joey Nicastro – a curly-haired rocker-turned-neatly gelled lawyer – called his buddy Tom Lillis, a banking executive. The conversation went like this:
“It’s always been on my bucket list to have a song that’s taken off nationally,” said Nicastro, a personal-injury attorney with the Buffalo firm Ramos & Ramos.
“It was on mine, too — a long time ago,” said Lillis, who is a senior vice president with Bank of America. “But not anymore.”
“No,” Nicastro insisted to Lillis. “We can do this.”
Lillis responded, “What do you mean, ‘We?’ ”
Nicastro was creatively connecting some dots, and he laid it out for Lillis: Both men are longtime musicians who play together in the Kensingtons, a Buffalo band. Both are board members for the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a duty that includes raising money.
For the last three years, they have raised thousands by holding a Rock for the Cure concert at the Tralf Music Hall, an event that features the Kensingtons and several other Buffalo acts.
But now Nicastro wanted to do something more.
“Let’s think big and try to achieve big,” he told Lillis. “I think I’ve got a great idea here: Let’s write a song.”
With the help of a cadre of Buffalo musicians and a Canadian rock star, they did. That song, “Against the Storm,” is being released Feb. 24 at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Diamond Ball. If it goes as Nicastro envisions – audacious as this plan is – the song may one day be sold and played around the country, raising money for the cause and qualifying as the hit he has always wanted.
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For both Nicastro and Lillis, the idea of writing a popular song is a wild notion, but not an inconceivable one.
Nicastro, 35, had an impressive but not lucrative music career, highlighted by opening for Paul McCartney in London in 2010, when his band More Than Me won Hard Rock Cafe’s global battle of the bands. A few years later, he lightened his commitment to music and, thinking long-term, enrolled in the University at Buffalo School of Law.
Lillis, 57, also has a successful musical past. In 1978, as a student at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, he was part of a group that wrote a song which won a national award from Downbeat magazine. He played around town regularly, took time away from the stage when raising his kids and building his career, and for the last several years has been back on Buffalo’s music circuit.
The writing of “Against the Storm” happened during the first part of 2017. The two men met at Lillis’ basement studio several weekend mornings, developing the tune and writing and sharpening the lyrics. They pulled in Justin Rizzo, Nicastro’s longtime More Than Me bandmate, for writing support, and by summer they had a full song.
At that point, Dick Shaner Jr., a veteran public-relations executive with the Martin Group/Martin Davison Public Relations, entered the project. Shaner, who provides publicity support for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, reached out to his friend Ron Hawkins, frontman of the seminal Canadian rock group Lowest of the Low.
Last summer, Hawkins was at home in Toronto finishing work on the Low’s new album, “Do the Right Now.” Shaner filled Hawkins in on the “Against the Storm” project: The song would be recorded at GCR Audio, the Buffalo studio owned by Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls, where manager Justin Rose donated his time.
A group of Buffalo musicians volunteered their time, too: vocalist Garrett Shea, guitarist (and Joe’s brother) Frank Nicastro of the Strictly Hip and drummer Erik Eimiller of Dirty Smile. The song would raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, with the help of chapters and radio stations around the country, they hoped.
Would Hawkins be willing to produce?
He would indeed. He’s a fan of Buffalo (the Low has played here countless times) and has a personal connection with the cause. (Hawkins’ father-in-law died of multiple myeloma.)
“I have a fondness in my heart for Buffalo,” Hawkins said. “I come down here all the time, and I’m always looking for ways to give back.”
Hawkins also said he would do it for free.
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The two-day recording session last August was intensely creative and creatively productive. After working with Nicastro and Lillis to trim the song from a fat five-minute demo to a slimmer, and more radio-friendly, 3 minutes, 20 seconds, Hawkins got to work directing the musicians.
He listened by the sound board as Frank Nicastro took several runs through a guitar solo. In the control room, the musicians agreed that Nicastro nailed the first two parts.
But on the other side of the soundproof glass, Nicastro seem unimpressed with his work. He was seated, hunched over his guitar, almost cradling the instrument as he tried to perfect each piece of the solo.
“He’s making it so hard on himself,” one of the musicians said. Everyone laughed. They admired Nicastro's effort, but also knew that cutting through his intensity with some feedback would require a deft touch.
“Hey, Frank," he said into a microphone that fed into Nicastro's headphones. "We’re digging the vibe of the first two, and maybe, suddenly, it gets very note-y. We’re thinking that maybe just leaving that whirl to the first two, just keeping that essence of how that first two feel.”
“It’s really sort of sexy and swingy,” Hawkins added.
Later, as the musicians finished work on their second version of the song — a rockabilly version in which they experimented with a Johnny Cash-style take — Hawkins stepped behind the microphone and recorded vocals to mirror Shea’s. After listening, and recognizing that both he and Shea are singing several steps above Cash’s deep-digging voice, he had an idea.
“We can try this, and it may either sound awesome or absolutely ridiculous,” Hawkins said. “I’m thinking, it’s all Johnny Cash, but the timbre it’s in with our voices is way higher than Johnny would’ve sang, right? I’m wondering if we should try doing both octaves” — he meant the middle and low — “and I’m talking about mix it almost completely subliminally, so you’d only notice it if you muted it. You’d notice some weight was missing, but you’re not going to hear it, per se.”
Shea, a still-rising singer in his mid-20s, was sitting on a high counter in the studio while Hawkins sang. He brightened at the octaves suggestion. Earlier, when Hawkins was in another room, he mused that it would cool for them to have back-and-forth vocals. This wasn’t quite that, but it was indeed a chance to sing with a punk-rock star.
“I can throw out some surprises,” Shea said. In a low-Cash voice, he started singing the song’s chorus: “Take my hand | I will walk with you | Through it all …”
Soon, Shea and Hawkins took turns behind the mic, recording vocals meant only to add subtle detail to the song — details that can take a work from good to great. Or in this case, as Nicastro envisions, from local to hopefully national when it is released.
“I may be steering the ship, but everybody is throwing in ideas that serve the song,” Hawkins said. “Every step makes the thing better. You’re whittling it, sculpting it, until you have what you feel is the best iteration of it. And then you cross your fingers.”
'Against the Storm'
The song: The song, written in support of people and families facing cancer, has two versions: one sung by Lowest of the Low frontman Ron Hawkins, the other by Buffalo singer Garrett Shea. Joey Nicastro and Tom Lillis were the lead songwriters, with significant contributions from Justin Rizzo and support from a few other musicians.
The team: Several people donated time, including producer/vocalist/instrumentalist Hawkins, vocalist Shea, guitarist Frank Nicastro, drummer Erik Eimiller, engineer Justin Rose of GCR Audio, and CD designer Bill Zulewski.
The premiere: The musicians debuted the song live last fall at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Rock for the Cure, and are releasing it Feb. 24 at the society’s annual Diamond Ball.
The live performance will include Shea on vocals, Joey Nicastro on lead guitar, Rizzo on rhythm guitar, Lillis on bass and Eimiller on drums. (Hawkins will not be present, and Frank Nicastro has a show in Canada with the Strictly Hip.) Click here or or call 716-834-2578. Updates on the sale of the song can be found by visiting the Facebook page or website.