Better Than Ezra
Monroe’s own rock band returns home for a benefit concert
article by Mary Napoli | photos by Joli Livaudais
Kevin Griffin’s distinctive falsetto voice fills the Monroe Civic Center. At sound check, the arena is nearly empty, save a few crew members and close friends, and BetterThan Ezra is warming up for a show that it seems the entire community has been anticipating.
“…yeah, you can go there if you want, though it fades too soon…”
From the microphone, Griffin glances to his right at bandmate James Arthur (Jim) Payne. Payne turns his gaze Griffin’s way, and they communicate without a word. Payne and Griffin have been comrades since they were teenagers in high school at River Oaks. They bonded early over a love of music that carried through their days as fraternity brothers at LSU, when the earliest formations of the band were taking place. More than twenty years later, Griffin and Payne, along with founding band member and fellow LSU Tiger Tom Drummond, have returned to their hometown with a special mission.
Prior to sound check, the band and some crew members, who are also from Monroe, made time to get back to their roots. They went back to places that evoked sentimental memories of the years gone by. They had a few beers at Enoch’s, a beloved institution known for music and good times that the men often frequented growing up. For Payne, it was a place where he cut his teeth musically.
“If it weren’t for Enoch’s, I would have missed out on some great music,” he remembers. “I saw Jerry Jeff Walker there Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown,” among others.
Bryan Barry, a native of Monroe, talented musician and Better Than Ezra tour manager for many years, made the trip home to manage the show at the Civic Center. He also has fond memories of growing musically at Enoch’s.
“Jim and I used to go to Enoch’s to hear bands. Then we would go sit in his car and play each other music that we had discovered–usually bands people had never heard of,” he recalls. “I owe my career to Monroe, especially to Matt Sheppard (of Matt’s Music) and Doyle Jeter (owner of Enoch’s). Matt was my only connection to gear, and Enoch’s the best place I could hear live music six nights a week. I was sneaking in there at seventeen and got to see some great bands.”
With Griffin, Payne and Barry stopped at Cormier’s, a favorite spot for seafood, before making it to the venue for sound check. “It was great, because we made it in time for the last day of crawfish,” says Griffin. “We couldn’t have planned it any better. Coming back to Monroe is such a treat for me. There are memories on every street.”
All three men spent formative years on the the northside of Monroe and spent the day driving down the same roads they had as mischief making teenagers.
“Monroe is looking really good. It really is a beautiful place…a great place to call home. There are memories everywhere for me. We were driving down Pargoud, and in the S curve, I saw the marks in a tree that got beaten up when I ran into it years ago,” says Barry with a smirk.
Barry, a graduate of St. Frederick’s High School, has built a successful career in the entertainment industry, and is now based in New Orleans. He also has fond memories of getting to know his now colleagues during sweltering summers growing up. Days on end were spent at the Chauvin Racquet Club, which is now the Monroe Athletic Club.
“Jim was the cooler, hipper, older guy. He was kind enough to let me hang around and sit next to him while he ate a burger or hit tennis balls politely to me on the courts,” Barry says with a laugh.
While Payne may have been remembered as being rock star material from the beginning, his memories of getting started in music are more humble. “I kind of fell backwards into it (the music industry),” says Payne. Both his mother, the legendary Grace Episcopal School educator, Bobbie Lou “Boo” Payne and grandmother were classically trained musicians. Music came naturally in the Payne household. “I got my first guitar in high school, and I was obsessed with it. I was lucky to have friends to teach me. Playing in college, I realized I had a footing in music,” he explains. When touring with Better Than Ezra, Payne displays his talent with guitar, as well as keyboards and harmonica. Looking back though, Monroe was a significant influence on him musically.
“…I remember running through the wet grass, falling a step behind…”
Fans of Better than Ezra are familiar with the band’s history and ties to Monroe, and many have speculated that some of lead singer and songwriter Kevin Griffin’s poetic lyrics were written with his hometown in mind. Griffin uncharacteristically shared some insight on his inspiration to a few signature Ezra songs.
“You really are a product of your environment, and there is a lot of Southern imagery and references in my lyrics…especially with the early songs. Certainly in those first albums like Deluxe, I was calling upon images of Monroe,” he explains. ‘Desperately Wanting’ was one of our bigger songs. It was about me spending the night out in my backyard with my buddies. You know, truly you don’t go to sleep when you camp out. You run around through the backyards and terrorize the neighborhood…running through the dew covered grass. Monroe has shaped my lyrics and my perspective. A song off that album called “Teenager” was actually written in Monroe. Every high school has disenfranchised kids who are trying to find their identity. Those were all things I experienced in Monroe, but specifically “Desperately Wanting” sticks out as a song that was definitely about growing up in Monroe. ”
This sentiment rings true with Jim Payne, as well. When not touring with Better than Ezra, he writes, records, and plays regularly with his band, Royal Payne, in New Orleans. Like Griffin, he draws on experiences from Monroe in his own songwriting.
“There is definitely something musical about Monroe. It’s something about the (Ouachita) River…it moves through the town. Music seems to flow from it,” he says. There may be something to this theory, especially since it gave birth to a band that has defied the odds of an industry where staying power is unusual.
“Better Than Ezra is a very bankable band,” says Barry. “There is a reason that they have had such longevity and continue to tour successfully. People know they are going to be entertained. Those guys have known each other forever and can riff off each other without thinking. They are going to play the music people love, goof off and joke around, play some covers…people love them.”
People do love them, especially their fans at home. The June 15 concert provided proof of that, beyond the shadow of a doubt. The crowd was ageless and the music timeless. The clock seemed to stop that night, and as the music filled the Civic Center, every person there was transported to a magical time and place. The evening was momentous for many reasons, but particularly because the event held such special meaning.
The brotherhood that is Better Than Ezra had returned home with a purpose. They were there not only for sentimental reasons, but to support Beth Payne Cummings, sister of Jim Payne. Nearly twenty years ago, Cummings was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but in recent years, her needs have accelerated. And just like any family, the band rallied around their own that night. The proceeds from the show acted as a fundraiser to assist Cummings with expenses due to her illness.
For Beth, her experience with multiple sclerosis began at age thirty. While teaching Lee Junior High, she began to notice an unusual tingling on one side of her body. After symptoms did not alleviate, she sought medical advice. After consultations and thorough testing, Cummings learned that she had developed the illness. Since that point, her symptoms would at times intensify or diminish. There were long periods of time where she felt energetic and normal again. During those years, she was blessed with the birth of her son, Payne, who is now 17, and she reveled in the joys of motherhood. She also became a sought after educator and gained a reputation for her talent and expertise in the classroom. She began her tenure at Neville High School, where she currently teaches English and is loved and respected by her students.
Recently, Cummings began to suffer with more severe adverse effects of the disease. When her needs became greater, friends and family came to her aid. They assisted her in many ways and did their best to make her life more comfortable and manageable. Younger brother, Jim, was by her side as much as possible supporting his sibling through the difficult circumstances.
“I couldn’t live without him,” Beth says with sincerity as her hand instinctively hovers over her heart. “He is like my bread.”
Even with a solid support system of family and friends, medical bills began to seem overwhelming. Jim Payne shared his concerns with a few close friends, and the idea of a concert to benefit his sister began to take shape. The band got behind the idea without question. Due to the band’s touring schedule, there was not an abundance of time to put the event together. With this in mind, Jim Payne contacted friend, community supporter, arts champion and force of nature that is Sue Sartor. When he asked if she thought a fundraiser of this magnitude was possible in such a short amount of time, she answered with typical Sue Sartor enthusiasm.
“In this town, anything is possible with the right mission and the right support,” she said with resolve.
From there, Payne and Sartor set the wheels into motion.
“Jim pulled together a truly dynamic group of long-time friends and movers and shakers in the community–the “Bayou Belles” for Beth. They all had great attitudes and amazing energy. Beth is a dedicated educator and has given back to the children of this community on multiple levels. She is a teacher, a confidant and a friend to her students. It was time that the community gave back to this special and selfless woman. Everything came off without a hitch because of the band, committee, volunteers, in-kind sponsors and patrons that had a willingness to make it happen. It was the quintessential good-feeling event. And the music was incredible!” says Sartor.
Sartor is quick to note that the event would never have taken place had so many locals not committed their time so unselfishly. The committee, dubbed the “Bayou Belles,” consisted of close friends of Cummings: Amy Terzolas, Johnna Nelson, Cynthia Ryan and KP Endsley. Trey Parker of the Diamond Vault donated $3000.00 in gift certificates and a gorgeous multi-colored diamond ring that Kelly and Ellie Jackson worked tirelessly to raffle off for the benefit. Lisa Rizzo was an integral source of help and rallied over 80 sponsors, like Marsala Beverage, Choice Brands, Portico, Coke, BayouLife Magazine and the Diamond Vault. Fabulous designer Tish Miller and Lisa Dixon provided beautiful table arrangements and assisted in setting up auction and sponsor tables for the event. Stephen Walker and his team from Portico kept the crowds well fed at the sponsor party before the show, as well as at the after party at Portico. In one single night, the great efforts of so many came together to create momentous celebration with an enduring message.
“…three and a half minutes felt like a lifetime…”
While the night was memorable for everyone who attended, it was truly unforgettable for Cummings. Witnessing so many people come together to show their support for her was a touching experience that she will always hold in her heart.
“So many people were there that I have not seen in forever. I wish I had been able to thank every single one. There were even friends who traveled from out of state to come come. It was a really phenomenal night,” says Cummings. “I’ve seen the band a million times, and I can honestly say that venue was the best. I think the band really had a great time, too. It was a resounding success!”
For Jim Payne, the night was not only sentimental, but a true testament to the bonds of community in his hometown. He thoughtfully recognizes the heartwarming reaction of the audience filled with the familiar faces.
“It goes without saying that night meant a lot to me. I think our entire class (River Oaks’ Class of 1985) was there. Looking out and seeing high school friends with their kids was incredible. It was more than I ever thought possible…being there with friends and family–there is no better feeling to me.”
Kevin Griffin agrees that it was an extraordinary night in many aspects. He was proud to have the opportunity to support his friend, as well as revisit the place where his musical interests began.
“You know, just like you always want to make your parents proud, you always want to make your hometown proud of you, too. That never really goes away. You want to show them that you’ve made good. And when we got up on stage Saturday night, I expected people our age to know the lyrics, but there were kids singing the words and jumping all around–that was really special…Music and entertainment is a very fickle thing. And to know that people still give a damn and you are still resonating and relevant with people is special…it’s a pretty rare thing. So it was special on many levels for us.”
Although he has toured the globe and found success far beyond the southern US, returning to Monroe gave Griffin pause to reflect on his bond with his hometown. My roots run really deep here. Coming back here is always a good thing….The whole spirit and the vibe of the show was so meaningful, and to see the community express their connection to and love for Beth Payne Cummings was really special.”
It seems that regardless of where life takes these musicians, there will always be a path that leads back to Monroe. Jim Payne’s successful career with Better Than Ezra continues, but a piece of his heart remains here.
“It all comes back to here, because how could it not? You only have one hometown. This is my home.”
Watch for the release of Better Than Ezra’s new album later this summer, that includes the popular single Crazy Lucky. Keep up with the band as they tour the US in 2014 on their website, betterthanezra.com, or via facebook or twitter.