When Andy Campolieto decided to write about his boyhood home of Schenectady for “Mohawk,” the third studio album of his Boston-based band Jo Henley, he wanted to create something that was more than just a history lesson.
There’s history on the album, to be sure. Over the course of 14 songs, Campolieto tackles the Kittie West excursion boat that used to ferry passengers on the Erie Canal (“The Kittie West”), familiar Schenectady locations (“Clinton’s Ditch”) and General Electric’s impact on the city (“The City That Lights the World”).
But in between songs like these are personal stories from Campolieto’s childhood, from his relationship with his father to reflections on his mother’s adoption on “1985.” The personal songs actually turned out to be harder for him to write, but in the end helped make the album more relatable to all audiences, not just Schenectadians.
writing from the heart
Jo Henley with Bill Ackerbauer
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Moon & River Cafe, 115 S. Ferry St., Schenectady
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 382-1938, www.moonandrivercafe.com
“I’m not trying to offend anybody or air dirty laundry,” Campolieto said from Boston. “I think if you write from anything other than a very honest place, stripping away your fears — I think if you write from a standpoint that’s anything less than that, it’s going to be a weak song. Anything you do, you have to go all out; it has to come from the heart or not at all.”
The personal touch has allowed the songs to resonate with the country rock band’s audiences throughout their Northeast stomping grounds. Through touring the album, Campolieto has realized that its small-town narrative is a common one for many cities throughout the U.S.
“Even though I was writing from such a personal standpoint, it took on its own life,” he said. “It was like I was writing almost a commentary about small cities in America that used to be really important. I’m not saying that Schenectady is no longer an important city, but it’s not on the forefront of a revolution or anything now, and at one point it was the birthplace of General Electric, with connections to the Transcontinental Railroads, the Erie Canal.”
Campolieto and the rest of the band — lead guitarist Ben Lee, drummer Mike Dingley (who also hails from the Capital Region — Clifton Park) and bassist Kent Stephens — will bring that narrative home, literally, this weekend. The band performs at the Moon & River Cafe on Saturday night, and will also be featured at the Greenmarket in Proctors Arcade on Sunday.
Forming a band
Campolieto hasn’t actually lived in Schenectady since the ’90s. He attended college in Ithaca, where he first met Lee and Dingley, and the three formed their first band, Old Janx Spirit.
“We were almost kind of these pieces, off to find ourselves, trying to find our place,” Campolieto said. “Ben was already a pretty accomplished guitar player; Mike was studying percussion and drums at Ithaca. I only play guitar a little bit — mostly I’m a singer, or more like a writer, writing fiction, poetry, things like that. We just started off — I would write music with Ben, write lyrics and sing melodies over it.”
After college, the three brought the jammy Old Janx Spirit to Boston, but soon realized they were a bit out of their league. “We didn’t really think that much about it — we were young and full of [crap],” Campolieto said.
“We loaded a big truck with our stuff and drove here that night. We tried to make our way through the music business here, but what we didn’t recognize at the time was we didn’t have a lot of connections. Most people have a lot of deep roots here — they’re either transients, like Berklee students, or you’re a long-established musician here. We sort of fell somewhere in the middle.”
Dingley eventually quit music for a time, as Campolieto and Lee began refining acoustic songs for what would become Jo Henley. The band’s first EP appeared in 2006, followed by their full-length 2008 debut, “Sad Songs and Alcohol.”
The final lineup of the group, with Dingley returning to playing, didn’t coalesce until after 2010’s “Inside Out,” which featured three members of the Trey Anastasio Band — Tony Markellis, Ray Paczkowski, and Russ Lawton.
“Not to sound corny, but we were tickled pink — we were about to record this album with some of our favorite musicians,” Campolieto said. “In the long run, it means we probably burned some bridges and lost some bandmates as a result, but I know we would still make the same decision again.”
The idea for “Mohawk” came when Campolieto’s son was born, about eight months before sessions for the album took place in February of last year.
“A thought came to me — like, oh my God, my wife is from Schenectady, I’m from Schenectady, my parents, generations of both our families are there,” he said. “But at least at this point in time, we have no plans to live there again. So I thought, wow, my son is not going to have any idea what it’s like to grow up in Schenectady, and everyone around him is from this place. I started to think about what Schenectady means to me, and it made me want to know ore about the historical aspects of the city and also my life growing up there — what are the parallels?”