In a way only true and humbling hindsight could provide, after Van Ghost’s nearly decade long run as a musical project concluded, the band and singer/ songwriter Michael Harrison Berg found themselves at a crossroads. Over the next few years the band scaled back on touring to only a handful of special festival-based performances per year ranging from Costa Rica to Chicago, and from Mexico to Florida.
Recognizing inspiration comes in waves, Berg wrote a series of new songs and assessed old ones that never got recorded, but fit the current version of the band’s vibe. And for a week before New Year’s of 2015, Van Ghost co-founder, Jennifer Hartswick, got the band invited to a fabled studio in her home state of Vermont, known as The Barn, which is owned by the band Phish.
For years, the line up has served as a rotating cast of Berg and Hartswick’s musician friends, who fans and the band started referring to as The Ghost Unit, a nickname for the extended family participating in recordings and live shows in support of Van Ghost.
Hartswick and Berg have served as the primary voices and organizers of Van Ghost activity since the early days. And their devoted friendship comes through in the music as clearly as it does in real life. When they started brainstorming ideas regarding the brand new, third Van Ghost record, they reminisced on members of the Ghost Unit who could fit a certain vibe they were striving for. This led to the most balanced and unified vision of the band that has ever existed.
Van Ghost’s main songwriter and founding member is singer Michael Harrison Berg. Other members consist of Jennifer Hartiswick on vocals & trumpet, with her band mate from Trey Anastasio Band, Natalie Cressman on vocals & trombone. The two headed lead guitar tandem is made up of The Nth Power’s, Nick Cassarino and Grant Tye, who hails from Sonia Dada and Robbie Fulks Band. A rhythm section that any band would dream of has bassist Chris Chew of The North Mississippi All Stars & The Word plus drummer John Staten, a player with gospel roots who has served tenures in Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and currently plays with Pimps of Joytime. Hailing from Nashville, by way of Chicago, the multi instrumentalist & prolific songwriter, Chris Gelbuda has had a huge presence with Van Ghost both historically and musically on this record. Recently writing and producing songs for stars like Meghan Trainor, John Legend, & Billy Currington, Gelbuda’s co-written songs for Van Ghost have served as both educational and influential on Berg’s songwriting style. On key’s, the band was thrilled to have Rob Marscher who has played with Addison Groove Project and Matisyahu over the years. Finally joining the party as a cherry on top, a few saxophone solo’s we’re later laid down by very special guest and friend, Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic.
During the recording process, which is a snap shot of a moment in time shared at The Barn, the band recorded 14 songs over a 5 day period with friend & engineer Ben Collete. Songs range from rock anthems Cold Panic & Simplify, to Funk tunes such as Strength & Pain or the Hartswick led Follow Me, to more traditional Americana heart break style, I Ain’t Gonna Fight You, For You or soulful and driving Gelbuda tune, Fool For The Pain. In between tracking songs while Collete cleaned up the files that were recorded straight to 2 inch tape and then sent into pro-tools for editing… Cassarino & Staten would lead gospel sing-alongs from their musical upbringing which created a situation where there was never a moment shy of laughter, love or music. When Collete was ready, the band dug into the next cut and song by song the communal gospel vibe encouraged songs to become funkier, smothered with multi layered and alternating harmonious vocal parts and horn arrangements. After consideration of the serendipitous experience they just had together, the album was aptly titled after the bands namesake, “The Ghost Unit”. The title epitomizes the roots of the name and everything the inside joke gone public stands for, as the music speaks for itself, and the fans speak for the music.
Over the coming months Berg, Tye, Gelbuda & Hartswick got involved with the editing and mix team of Manny Sanchez and Greg Magers who over the years have worked on albums for artists such as Umphrey’s McGee, Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, & Lupe Fisaco among several others. Greg & Manny, took the album to the next level in Chicago & LA, bringing out the best of the vintage tones Collete captured during the Barn sessions from his extensive knowledge of the gear and the incredible space to capture sounds in. The band, along side their loyal label Dustimmoff Music, are elated to finally share this record with the world and are excited for people to assess where they have found themselves at this current juncture, full of love & pride in a collective vision seen to fruition, called: Van Ghost “The Ghost Unit”.
“On their latest release, Van Ghost utilizes some of live music’s most sought after musicians to bring a new batch of material to life. Tracks like “Follow Me” and “Strength & Pain”, now in rotation on SiriusXM’s Jam ON, showcase world class musicians flexing their collective chops in the friendly confines of The Barn, Trey Anastasio’s Vermont Farmhouse Studio.”
– Ari Fink Program Director on SiriusXM’s JamOn & Pearl Jam Radio
“Strength & Pain” finds Berg backed by an all-star troupe that includes North Mississippi All-Star/The Word’s Chris Chew on bass, Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic on sax, Natalie Cressman and Jennifer Hartswick of the Trey Anastasio Band on vocals and horns, The Nth Power’s Nick Cassarino on guitar, Pimps Of Joytime drummer John Staten, Matisyahu’s Rob Marscher on keys, Grant Tye on electric guitar and Chris Gelbuda on acoustic guitar and keyboards.
“…a massive collaboration.”