To the naked eye, Club d’Elf looks exactly like a world-class instrumental band: five or six fierce players laying down heavy grooves and exploratory solos on distinctive original material, as audience members dance or listen in rapt attention. To its fans, however, and its large and colorful cast of musicians, D’Elf is all that and much, much more.
The paradox and the power of the unusually named Club d’Elf become increasingly clear through repeated encounters. Unlike almost any other band, D’Elf’s personnel changes radically from show to show. Fans have their favorite configurations and players, but unlike groups where musicians’ tenures are finite, D’Elf-ians revolve in and out, reappearing in endless combinations. Beyond the cavalcade of characters, the music itself is in constant flux. Individual songs can vary dramatically from performance to performance as new alignments of players make every moment fresh. No two sets are alike. Yet the feeling and philosophy that animate D’Elf remain consistent, the product of the vision and dedication of leader Mike Rivard (aka Micro Vard) and the ongoing contributions of his talented collaborators. Devoted fans have been setting their clocks by the group’s bimonthly appearances at their home base, the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for twenty years now, and the message has traveled around the world.
Club d’Elf began in 1998 at the Lizard as a kind of controlled jam session, featuring Rivard’s friends and associates from various bands. Mark Sandman, the leader of Morphine, was an important catalyst, suggesting that it was time for Rivard to form his own band. An in-demand sideman, the bassist had earned notice with Jonatha Brooke, the Walkers, the Either/Orchestra and a Sandman side project, Hypnosonics. He envisioned a band that wasn’t built around the specificity and spotlight that frontmen usually demand, but one that would follow spontaneous cinematic soundscapes created by each member of the collective. Out of the original D’Elf jam pool emerged a core group, usually augmented by one or two other players from a rotating cast. The core was eventually honed to its essentials: Rivard and drummer Erik Kerr, followed eight years later by drummer Dean Johnston.
“I didn’t want to feed the musicians with too many ideas of what the music SHOULD be,” says Rivard, “because what keeps it fresh and alive for me is me being astounded by what other people come up with. The thing that really excites me is somebody coming in and taking over, taking us down avenues we haven’t traveled before.”