Lovely Licks

D. Clinton Thompson -- better known as Donnie to friends and devoted fans of bands such as the Skeletons, the Morells, the Original Symptoms and the Park Central Squares -- is one of the most talented rock guitarists I've ever had the pleasure to hear in performance.Thompson's great guitar licks can be found on Skeletons recordings such as Waiting and the band's latest CD, Nothing to Lose. But don't expect to hear solo turns in the usual "rock-guitar-god mode." Thompson's not one of those guys who turns every solo into a six-string extravaganza of finger-breaking chord changes or mind-glazing attempts to break the world record for cramming as many notes as possible into the least amount of time.Instead, Thompson's the kind of guitarist who turns in solos that are sharp, succinct and -- most importantly, move the music exactly where it needs to go.But if you do want to hear Thompson stretch out on guitar, check out the eponymous debut recording of the Park Central Squares on the local Blueberry Hill label. You'll find Thompson working in a basic trio setting -- backed by the tight, talented bass player Dudley Brown and drummer Katie Coffman.And you'll also find Thompson cranking through some great guitar licks on an array of forgotten, off-the-wall rock tunes -- as well as unrecorded stuff from the likes of Ben Vaughn, Dan Marcus (remember the song "Growin' a Beard" that Marcus wrote for Vaughn?) and Thompson himself.For example, check out the Squares' version of "You Must be a Witch," a cut by a '60s "blip-on-the-screen" band called the Lollipop Shoppe. Thompson rips into some great psychedelic guitar reminiscent of the classic band, Love. Or how about the opening cut, "Be a Man," by the Brats, a '70s New York City band that evidently no one but Thompson ever heard of. The Squares bring the post-Velvet Underground tune to life with energy to spare -- and some squalling guitar riffs from Thompson.Add covers of cult '60s bands such as Los Hombres ("Take My Overwhelming Love And Cram It Up Your Heart") and the Chocolate Watchband ("I Ain't No Miracle Worker"), mix with quirky Vaughn tunes such as "Don't Spill Ketchup on My Toast Bread," and you've got to wonder just where Thompson comes up with these hidden gems."I guess I'm really in a great position to find tunes," says Thompson, speaking by phone from his Springfield, Mo., home. "For one thing, people are always sending me tapes. Before he started recording, for instance, Ben Vaughn used to send me tons of demo tapes. And I listen to a lot of old albums and 45s. To me, it doesn't matter who wrote the song originally, as long as it works."The Park Central Squares formed back in 1993, after it appeared that the Skeletons were going to fade away into rock & roll Valhalla. The band had toured almost nonstop for the previous year, promoting its 1991 release, Waiting. But the usual problems of working for an independent label that was inept at coordinating and promoting the band's concerts and too small to gain widespread distribution of the CD at retail thwarted the band's efforts."Back then it looked like we were hanging it up for good," recalls Thompson. "So after making some demos with Lou (Whitney, the Skeletons' bass player), shopping them around and getting no response, I just retired for about five months. But like a typical musician, I got bored and decided to try to put a band together -- just looking to play around home on weekends."Thompson immediately recruited Katie Coffman as a drummer, but his first choice on bass -- Vic Davis -- broke his wrist and had to leave the group after a few months. Dudley Brown stepped in to fill the void, and the Park CentralSquares soon picked up a following playing weekends in Springfield, St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City."Katie and Dudley had good jobs, so we only played outside of Springfield on Saturdays," says Thompson. "And even though the Squares started out as a side project, I really enjoyed it as much as any band I've ever played in."But the Park Central Squares concept seemed to have run its course in mid-1996 when vocalist Syd Straw asked the Skeletons to back her on a nationwide tour after recording an album with the group in Springfield. That commitment -- and a new recording contract for the Skeletons -- didn't leave any time for Thompson to perform with the Park Central Squares."Before I went on tour with Syd, I went into the studio with Katie and Dudley," says Thompson. "We weren't really looking to put anything out, but we did want to document the band, because it had worked so well. We cut 22 tunes, and were pretty happy with the results."Three of the songs that Thompson originally cut on the Park Central Squares recording ended up on the most recent Skeletons CD ("Pay to Play," "Charmin' Billie" and "Nothing to Lose"). The rest of the music sat around until a friend of the band, Mark Bayles, communicated his interest to the Squares about getting into marketing music."Mark wanted to get his feet wet in the music business, so we gave him the tape to work with," explains Thompson. "He called up Danny Thompson, who has a lot of contacts in the business, and as a result, the CD is out on the Blueberry Hill label."The Park Central Squares haven't played a gig since 1996, but if the band's debut CD does well, don't rule out a revival for the group -- and concert appearances in St. Louis. In the meantime, you can check out Thompson with the Skeletons at the MRMF (Oct. 18 at the Tap Room) and at Cicero's in November.In the meantime, check out the Park Central Squares on CD. And don't be too hasty to turn it off after the final cut. Settle back and enjoy an unlisted bonus version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" -- then talk a friend into buying the CD, too. It just might be the sale that convinces the Squares to hit the road for a few more weekend gigs.

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