Fun to look at and fascinating to know about, the Mediums half-jokingly claim that they got their name because a higher power works through them, but the Harlem-based garage-pop trio might just be channeling the spirit of affability. Theirs is an all-encompassing zeitgeist—a party band that hasn’t forgotten how to connect with an audience. Singer-guitarist James Schaffner has a gosh-golly good nature when communicating with the crowd between numbers, and he gets passionately red-faced when commanding his voice through the Gin Blossoms-y palette of their songs. He also has a master’s degree in opera singing from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied under the tutelage of Maitland Peters (yes, the one and same who taught Kip Winger to belt).
“I try to separate the two worlds of arty, intellectual opera and my rock,” he says, looking every bit like Hugh Grant. Being that Schaffner reveres revolutionary acts like Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and the pop-sensible Elvis Costello, while equally idolizing opera singers Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda, it’s not surprising that the Mediums perform a unique brand of pensive pop-rock—pop because of catchiness, rock due to the king-size sound. “We see the trends and clicks in music, and we appreciate that,” says Schaffner, “but the one true and genuine thing is the basic pop-rock song. It’s never disappeared.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the Mediums, an unlikely variety show that formed in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1997 before moving to the Big Apple in 1999 to escape the ever spreading “Emo-ha” scene. Drummer Mark “Thunder” Anderson is a sweaty, extra-large Medium who looks like Charlie Daniels, lashes his skins incongruously to the flowerier airs of his singer, and says he wants to drum like NYC street-scenes photographer Gary Winogrand shot (“seizing each vulnerable moment”). Bassist Mike Cain is a classically trained jazz saxophonist who picked up the bass to “avert the dreadful course of ennui,” loves Merle Haggard, and doesn’t fancy performing stone sober.
Today’s Mediums play the shadier bars in NYC, hoping to become buddies with everyone in the room by the end of the night. And after a nine-minute locomotive of a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” where all three guys perform drop-jaw solos, they usually do. Cover tunes are just the party in them. But it’s the Mediums’ original songs, notably the mood-enhancing single “C.S.T. (Central Standard Time),” from their third record, Oh So—Fabuloso, that contain the grit. In “C.S.T.,” Schaffner pours a strong, intense vocal over a White Stripes-ish guitar-‘n’-drum canvas.
What the Mediums can do musically with their instruments, as with their homage to Cash, is impressive, but the thing that they’ve absolutely mastered is peering into life’s little problems from a benign, beer-soaked place. “It’s all about a sense of community, especially here in New York,” says Anderson. “Some bands are so concerned with making scenes that they forget to make music. We stick to music.” Party on, Thunder.