Anatomy of a Trio

The number three is mischievous by nature. It’s often embedded in concepts that have positive or negative vibes. On the darker side is the well-worn “three’s a crowd,” George W.’s spiffy “Axis of Evil” and the ever-creepy Three Blind Mice. On the brighter side of the ledger of all things three: The Three Musketeers (candy bar included), the seventies/eighties sitcom Three’s Company and perhaps the most provocative and impassioned of all (no, not the mythical threesome), the great musical trio that inspires through its execution, chemistry and three-headed mojo (ok, the mythical threesome, too). The combustibility of three musicians in full flight is rarely achieved in larger or smaller ensembles. Porch Groove is a trio that ratchets up the power of three, creating an original brand of gypsy-Americana, which transports the listener to that extra comfy easy chair right in the middle of the impromptu family jam.

It was fitting that the interview took place on frontman Gary Marocchi’s totally-chilled and ridiculously-spacious, enclosed back porch. One thing becomes clear after just a few minutes with the band: These folks love what they are doing, they love each other and they love the trajectory they are on. There is nothing gushy or saccharine about their presentation, just three wizened musicians who know how good they have it. “After playing, we always walk away happy” said Marocchi.

Rounding out the Porch Groove mini-universe are Brian Carroll and Natasha Kozak. All three occupy a variety of musical roles that accounts for the group’s broad yet distinctly Porch Groovian sound and repertoire. Marocchi serves as lead singer, principal songwriter, guitarist, pianist, occasional mandolin-man and Dylan-infused harp player. Carroll is usually found on the bass, but also contributes varying amounts of banjo, backup vocals, scorching-blues harmonica and often-hilarious George Carlinesque banter between songs. Kozak, who can rev and downshift her violin from rockin’ Eastern-European-gypsy to barn-dance honk, has recently added lead vocals and a little percussion to the rich brew. Kozak is modest and deferential regarding the lockstep attention she gets when the band plays live. “Being the female in the band, playing the instrument I play, people seem to notice me more than they ought to,” she said.

The way the trio often utilizes the violin for the lead melody line has a way of making both Marocchi’s tunes and Porch Groove’s deep catalog of rare-gem covers sound refreshingly original. Somehow songs from Lucinda Williams to Louis Armstrong sit seamlessly within the same set. “The commonality is the instrumentation,” said Marocchi. When discussing the witchy alchemy that the violin can bring to even a straight-ahead, note-perfect rendering of a Tom Petty song Carroll said, “It always sounds like us.” The band pulls off sets of high-adrenaline folk and borscht-tinged Americana that keeps the band’s core audience happily engaged from start to finish. Porch Groove’s sound is not singular in nature, though. Referring to the banjo, mandolin and their variety of vocal combinations, Marocchi said, “Incorporating the other instruments in the mix breaks up the sound giving the audience a break.” Discussing some of the pre-rock era songs they play, Carroll added, “We have used train whistles and kazoos.” In addition to a heaping handful of Marocchi tunes—which sprout from the same fertile soil as the masters that Porch Groove interpret—a typical set may include tunes from such artists as the Grateful Dead, Tom Waits and Jackson Browne. And, at times, there is a Bob Dylan Desire-era bohemian mist that coats the whole down-home aural carnival.

Over Porch Groove’s three years of existence, they have slipped more originals into the mix, preventing them from getting pigeonholed in cover band purgatory. The marrow that lies deep in their bones is well seasoned and has been marinated by experience, sweat and time, too.

Marocchi began playing harmonica at eight and piano a year or two later. Although he credits the folk revolution that blossomed in Greenwich Village in the sixties as central to his musical mindset, an equally monumental and influential force lay much closer to home. Discussing songwriter and avant-garde artist Robert Amorosino, a lifelong friend who lived four doors away in Brady Bunch-era Massapequa Park, Marocchi said, “Robert writes on an infinite canvas, the lyrics paint the visual, sort of like Dylan or Waits… He’s a true master.” The two first played, wrote and recorded together at age ten, and still collaborate on rare occasions, but for Marocchi, the musical imprint is ever present. “He is the most creative person I know… He was an insane influence on me,” he said fondly.

Carroll, who began collaborating with Marocchi in the eighties, caught the musical bug at eight, and like his future bandmate, began by teaching himself harmonica. He has been a bassist in high demand for nearly three decades. A lifelong visual artist with many professional credits to his name, Carroll has worked as an animator on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Daria and Clifford. He also maintains the Creation Art Center, an art school in Massapequa where he teaches all the visual arts including animation, cartooning and painting.

Although Kozak has all the fancy, formal music credits on her resume you would expect from such a monster of a player (member of the New York Youth Symphony, intensives at the Aaron Copland School of Music), it was a Robert Johnson-like “crossroads moment” at age 9 that permanently cemented her musical bonafides. Returning from cold war-era East Berlin with her mother and a smuggled gift of a top-shelf violin from her uncle, the pair were searched and confronted about the status of the instrument by East German police at the West Berlin border while en route to Hamburg. Believing the violin was for some illegal purpose and not for personal use, young Kozak, who had been playing for only one year, was asked to play by the uniformed men or her mother would face possible time in prison. She picked up the instrument, saved her mom from jail and still plays the very same violin today.

Porch Groove is set to release their debut album of originals later this winter. Based on the tracks recorded in Marocchi’s home studio, longtime fans won’t be disappointed. Included are the shadowy love song “Roses In the Dark,” which confronts the issue of abortion with a gorgeous mournful violin out front and the barbershop country jaunt “June” that depicts the joys of summer afternoons. “Gary has been writing songs since grade school and continues to do so with un-ending creativity,” said Kozak.

Discussing the organic, loosen-your-suspenders arrangements that are his trademark, Marocchi cracked, “Slash can kiss my ass…give me the Indigo Girls.” The band is starting to move toward a more communal method of song development, too. “The harmonies and the notes all seem to happen,” said Carroll of the telepathy that takes place when the trio works on new material. Typical of any one of the three’s investment in the final product, the comedic bass guitarist is considering how to add a suitcase that is played by a bass drum pedal to the sound.

The pending release has hints of early Leonard Cohen and John Prine, but the musical threesome never really sound like anyone else. Despite some well-placed bits of warm trombone from Broadway pit vet Ray Fitzgerald, light percussion provided by Gerry Weeks of Sonic Bliss and a killer melody line or two courtesy of the aforementioned Amorosino, the nearly completed album Topless on the Reservation, courses with the lifeblood of Marocchi, Carroll and Kozak.

Porch Groove will continue their heartfelt ritual of organizing and playing benefits for Massapequans in need, something Marocchi and Carroll started doing in the eighties. But their indivisible focus is on the music; Porch Groove is committed to a future together. More and more originals and more intense gigging is the path they are on. They continue to unearth the power of three through continually shedding their skins as individuals for the sake of the group. A ménage à trois might be a giddy thought, but Porch Groove is real.

Porch Groove Live
December 7—Big Daddy’s, Massapequa
December 14—Corner Galley, Massapequa
January 10—Front Street Pub, Massapequa Park
January 19—Irish Cottage, Massapequa Park

michael block

When roused from his frequent reveries featuring himself as a Beatle, Mike Block is happy to resume his daily pursuits of providing occupational therapy for children with disabilities at Eastern Suffolk Boces and writing about the local music scene for Long Island Pulse magazine.