He’s been his namesake group’s singer, songwriter, and guitarist since the early 2000s. 15 years ago he started RallySound, a non-profit organization which has supported over a hundred (and counting) causes – and which has hosted grassroots festival The Ramble for 14 of those years. He once live streamed every single night for 500 nights, including his wedding day. And yet, it’s these past few months for Adam Ezra that have been a whirlwind of new achievements – raising $143,000 for homeless veterans and the New England Music Awards presenting his band with the Americana Act of the Year award at City Winery Boston, to name a couple.
Between being on the road and celebrating the arrival of his baby, he didn’t get a chance to make it to the official award ceremony. Ezra explains, “A week or two afterwards, I reached out to the folks in the New England Music Awards and was like, ‘We’re playing down the road in Boston. We’re going to do a hometown show. If you wanted, you could give us a chance to accept the award from you guys in person. They were like, ‘We think that’s an awesome idea.’”
It’s an exciting time for Ezra whose story is far from a fairy tale, having played 20 years without a record deal or song on the radio. “We literally just started playing in bars and it started with us calling our friends to come down. For years we’d play five hours a night in bars. They wouldn’t be selling tickets for us; they’d be trying to keep their drinkers drinking.
“It’s wonderful to be able to put together an event like The Ramble and be able to really raise some serious money and have a serious impact on a cause that’s so important. I feel totally humbled and honored to be recognized by the New England Music Awards. You never know where the path is going to lead you, but right now it’s a fun time to be making our music.” They seem to have gotten past the hurdle of eking out a living as musicians as they keep the train rolling headlong down the track, kicking up barroom dust in their wake. Arriving at a place where they are spreading their wings around the country playing to mostly beautiful theaters and quality listening rooms, Ezra finds that the next challenge immediately follows: how to make it sustainable. “How do you get it to a place where you can put kids through college? Before I had my first daughter, before the pandemic, I was playing 250 shows. Even when we were doing 250 shows, we tried to partner activism with music pretty heavily.”
Ezra started RallySound as a way to grow and connect with as many people as possible by empowering communities through music. “In other words, there are so many good people wanting to do a little good for the world. RallySound hopes to create mechanisms to bring music into the fold, whether it’s live performances that are raising money for causes, or information supporting people that are doing events, helping other artists engage in activism… As an artist, it’s hard to prioritize the activism element. So over the course of the year, we would play a bunch of shows for various charities. But we were also growing this community around our music, through the music we were making and the activism we were doing. We circled the wagons and we were like, you know what, this is so cool. We should create an event of our own every year that brings our community together from all over. That became The Ramble.”
The word is defined as wandering around in a leisurely manner, but The Ramble is anything but aimless. In the words of Dave Mason, “Here’s a little world you can all join in.” It’s a one-day, free festival in which Ezra personally invites independent artists. “You don’t have to have money to be a part of The Ramble. Your participation, just joining and being a part of it is the best thing that you can offer. Fans come out from all over the country and donate what they can. Whether it’s food, an auction, a mural painting – all of the stuff happening throughout the day is all geared towards raising money and supporting our homeless veterans.”
For every thousand dollars Adam Ezra Group raises working closely with New England Center and Home for Veterans, enough resources can be put together to help a soldier off the streets and into dignified housing. In a moment of Last Waltz brotherhood, all the artists who donate their time and talents to the festival throughout the day come up on stage at the end of the night to sing and play with Adam Ezra Group during their set. A microcosm of the greater endeavor, everyone is a part of the big show which speaks to another goal of Ezra’s: to build a strong community of artists in New England who support each other and share fans in common. “(It) totally inspires me, our amazing fan community. All these Ramble artists have our fans showing up and going to their shows all over the country. I think that is how it is supposed to be: a rising tide to raise all the ships.”
This past Ramble was their most successful to date, despite it being a scary time, in a somewhat literal sense. The band made the impossible decision to convert the side of a mountain. “We did this massive excavation project to build new festival grounds. We invested a lot of money into it, and it was just incredible. You’re overlooking this beautiful valley, the sunsets – and it’s one of the most amazing places I think in the world now to see music. And it’s the home of our Ramble. As a tiny indie organization, we didn’t know if that would hurt our ability to raise money for our veterans. What we didn’t want was people coming to The Ramble and when they were reaching into their pockets for their money to go towards supporting the excavation project and not supporting veterans. So we wanted to make sure all of their dollars still went to them, which is a super huge challenge that our incredible Ramble army rose to. We raised more money than we ever had by a massive amount.”
For the first ten years the festival was held in the North Shore on Salisbury Beach. Then Covid changed the trajectory of everything. That first year, instead of a live festival, Ezra conducted a 24-hour livestream of virtual artists. The evolution and “new normal” of live events during the pandemic didn’t come without production challenges, but it’s safe to say it’s become one of the biggest reasons the group is doing so well.
“We knew that the live streaming was going to need to be a part of The Ramble experience. It wasn’t just going to be this on-site festival; it should be an experience that anyone around the world could engage with us on. In 2021 we were where we did the excavation project but on the other side of the home. We were basically in the yard for a couple years. We had a skeleton crew of volunteers there to support artists who came out, and we slowly morphed from 100 percent live streaming to kind of 70 percent of the focus on live streaming in year two. Because we just couldn’t invite a lot of people in. Then, year three, it was maybe 50/50. Last year was the year where we went to this other section of this property. It was the first year that we really opened up the site.” Around 400 people attended The Ramble in 2022, with this last one at about a thousand. “We’re expecting bigger numbers next year. It’s amazing, because this is not an easy place to get to. It’s in Ashburnham, Massachusetts which nobody’s ever heard of. It’s in central northern Massachusetts, way out in the mountains.”
A misconception about activism is that in order to be an activist one must dedicate every ounce of their energy and every hour of the day. To Ezra it’s about unconditional kindness and simply engaging yourself one moment at a time, and each of us has a role to play in making a difference. Consider the global impact of local actions if everyone thought this way; if everyone helped their elderly neighbor bring in their groceries. “There are so many ways to do a little good for the world. You got a bunch of friends and you like to have cocktails on a Friday night; one night you could tell everybody to bring a non-perishable food item and the next day you bring it to the food pantry. Not only have you done a little good, right? The hang on Friday night feels better. It’s not going to save somebody’s life, but it’s going to help in a little way.”
It’s this kind of leading by example that has cemented the band’s cult reputation and built a culture of humanitarianism. “Our fans do such cool things. Even when we’re doing traditional concerts, they will come out and do a donation drive by our merch table, and they’ll organize. A handful of people will go out to dinner before the show, or they’ll do a cleanup somewhere. It’s so easy to do a little bit of good. And we get so much more back when we give that it can be something that when you do it once you want to do it again. You don’t have to spend 20 hours licking stamps and doing a big mailing campaign. And when people come together to see live music, it’s a perfect scenario for a little good to happen at the same time.
“Whether it’s a small concert or giant concert, everybody’s coming from their own world and you show up in this space and you’re surrounded by strangers. But over the course of the night, you’re all experiencing this thing together. Part of our mission, too, is every show is different. We never go on to a stage with a setlist. A concert can be a conversation between an audience and artist. What we are receiving from the audience should impact what we are putting out. Maybe we have an idea of how we expect the night is going to go, but when the night takes on a life of its own based on what’s happening in the room or field or wherever we are, those are the most magical nights.”
Aside from charity events, they do other non-traditional concerts such as backyards. “We have hundreds of fans applying, and I show up in as many living rooms as possible, just me and a guitar. We call it the Get Folked House Concert series.” The difference in energy, he says, is vast. Two little house concerts can be as different from one another as a house concert and a giant festival playing to 5,000 people. “Every night for us these days feels totally different, and it depends on what is happening in the world. It depends on what is happening that week. It depends on what the weather is doing. Sometimes the fact that a bunch of people show up in a snowstorm and they’re stressed when they get there – sometimes those are the most magical nights because you just hunker down together. And you have this awesome experience despite the world seeming like it’s coming to an end outside.”
Their latest effort, The Album Project, was born from the pandemic. All the time suddenly not on the road was time spent working in the studio – in between live streaming every night, of course. “There is this really cool give and take when you’re live streaming. I would play songs that were in sketch mode, that weren’t finished yet. Or freshly written songs that I hadn’t played in a long time. There was such fresh feedback. That’s what it’s all about, connecting with people. You got this real time data about what was really connecting most powerfully, and that was super inspiring to us. “In the midst of that, we were working on the studio stuff and it didn’t feel natural for us to wait until the whole album was finished. So as we finished the songs we would release.”
The Gathering livestream still happens twice a week on Tuesday at 8pm EST. They take their “gatherers” out to concerts during the weekends and broadcast in entirety. “In the midst of that, we were working on the studio stuff and it didn’t feel natural for us to wait until the whole album was finished to release stuff. We loved that process. We would finish songs and we would share it with our audience. But then at the end of that, at the end of that process, we put all of those singles together and that became The Album Project.”
“High Desert Woman” features 15-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas on dobro. “He plays the shit out of the dobro on that one. That’s one of the biggest honors I’ve ever gotten to experience is having Jerry Douglas play with us on the track. We saw him in his backyard, during the pandemic, play us this song for the first time and talk about what inspired him.” I am surprised to learn that capturing a live-off-the-floor sound can be a challenge for Ezra in the studio, especially for a band known for their stage charisma and the way in which they and their fans feed off each other in a reverential loop of energy. But the same authenticity with which they perform live can be heard on The Album Project.
“Let’s Get Outta This Town” chugs along so deliberately over a diesel locomotive beat that it can’t get away from the city lights and out to a plot of land in the desert fast enough. Their arrangement of the Band’s “Ophelia” highlights the musicianship of the band, the fiddle in particular bringing an added dimension to the material and sharply, exquisitely carrying the melody line. “Corrina is such a versatile player. We loved playing that song live and we decided to add it to the album. We’re so glad we did.” To put it bluntly, I die a little more inside each time I walk past yet another band going through the motions of “Ophelia.” Adam Ezra Group can raise a little Cain while staying consecrated to the service of the band. After all, it is fun territory to explore, but also sacred ground.
“They are three of my favorite musicians in the world, and they’re great people,” he enthuses about bandmates Corinna Smith (fiddle), Alex Martin (drums), and Poche Ponce (bass). “They challenge me every single night on stage. They make me a better artist and they make me a better person. It’s definitely my favorite incarnation of the Adam Ezra Group since we started playing music. Alex has been playing with me for about 12 years now. His kick drum is this big 1960s marching bass drum. He’s got a muffler on his kit, and he’s got hand percussion on his kit. Alex and I come up with arrangements to serve the song. That often means something kind of non-traditional in terms of the way a rock drummer performs.
“Corrina is amazing, classically trained but also with a ton of roots in Americana. She’s been playing with some incredible players since she was a little girl, so she’s got this crazy versatility on her instrument that is awesome. During a show, she’ll pick up an accordion or the keys. We have her playing penny whistle on some stuff.”
One of the things he loves most about his band also poses one of the biggest challenges for them. Writing and drawing from a deep well of many different styles that inspire him works on so many levels but also makes it hard to define what they do. “Telling stories, activism through music, and acoustic instruments are the folk aspect. My mom is a folk musician and a children’s musician. I grew up listening to old school folk: Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Simon and Garfunkel. I love Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. These were artists that were staples in my house growing up. I got to high school and discovered the classic rock station, technical players.”
He believes it necessary to venture out of the comfort zone, with a catalog of so many songs that they don’t have to play the same set every night. “That to me is coming from my love of improvisational music. No one would call us a jam band, but that to me is very much coming from my love of improvisational live music. No one would call us a jam band, but we have fans that will come out and see 50 shows a year, and travel around and see us. When we go out on tour, we have a group of fans that always follow us from stop to stop. And I’ve only seen that in the jam band scene. So I think it’s super interesting that it’s happening with us. It’s a big sense of community. I have now done about 750 Gatherings. We literally have fans tracking, that have a database of every song that I’ve played on the series. When they want to see some song that I never play, they’ll reference the database or they’ll talk about it and they’ll be like, ‘Gathering 57 was the first time that he played ‘High Desert Woman’ and now it’s on The Album Project.’”
The Adam Ezra Group is in the midst of recording, with 25 songs in the can. John Oates, half of the duo Hall & Oates, remains a kindred spirit and songwriting partner. He co-wrote a few tracks on their 2017 album, Hurricane Wind, and is slated to release his own version of “All I Am.”
You may associate Oates with platinum-certified pop, but his blues and folk roots run deeper than you’d think, deep enough to sustain over a half-century of records. “We were working on a song that he and I wrote together, and I sent him some of the tracks we were working on. He said, ‘Adam, why don’t you come to Nashville?’ And we added some other musicians to the mix, and that song is actually finished. I’m so excited to release it. We’ve written nine or ten songs together, and it’s pretty inspiring.”