Songlines, legend would have it, have drawn many a wandering soul on various paths in life. Follow one of Ray Red’s, at least on occasion, and you’ll walk into open mic night at 230 Down in Southampton.
Ray Red may not be singing when you walk in. Odds are, in fact, he won’t be, given the lineup of regulars who take the microphone for their moments in the spotlight. Ray is an internationally known musician, one you’ll see and hear on the East End this summer as you have every summer for more than a decade. But he’s also a fan, a fan of anyone who finds joy in rhythm and beat and belting out some tunes. That is what draws the man down under at 230 Elm—the performers. “There’s one guy in particular, I am going to guess he’s about 85. He’s been playing guitar about 3 years, and every week he comes with a new song he’s learned—songs from the ’50s or the Cure. He’s the coolest guy ever.”
Many would throw that same sentiment Red’s way. He wears his laid-back musician’s manana attitude as easily as a summer breeze. He lives on the beach in Sag Harbor and on the beach in Australia’s Byram Bay, depending on which area happens to be enjoying summer at the moment. “I have to live on the beach wherever I happen to be, so I can be near the water. I go kayaking, or swimming or whatever, as long as I’m near the water.”
And man, does he love this local scene—not just watching cool octogenarian guitar heroes but getting on the stage himself. From “the Canal Café in Hampton Bays—one of my favorites” to The End, where he’ll open the season of free concerts for the Montauk Chamber of Commerce on July 2. “They call me up in Australia every January and ask me to do the first one. It’s great. You get people all around, and we get the kids at the end to sing the last song with us. It’s a blast.”
Coming to the Hamptons for the past 11 years, Ray is as much a fixture of an East End summer as lobster rolls and logjam traffic. As if his talents weren’t enough, he has a secret to holding an audience unique to these environs.
“Around here, you’re driving everyplace, so you can’t drink so much unless you’re riding with someone. You think, ‘So I’m always driving, I can’t drink so much, so if I’m seeing a band and they take a break, I’m probably going to leave.
“But if I’m playing someplace, people say, ‘Okay, when he takes a break, we’ll go.’ And I never take one.”
It’s an apt metaphor for an existence that takes him on an annual trek, as the seasons go, from the Hamptons to Germany to Thailand to Australia—with added forays to, say, a few Canadian cities, too—and back again. He puts great value on the friendships and acquaintances he’s built around the world, both those made in person and those forged his parallel life as a preeminent Internet guitar instructor.
“My nephew lives in Florida,” he says in telling that origin story, “and he was going from 14 to 15, going away from rap music, and he wanted to learn ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ on the guitar,” Ray recounts. “I got the camera out, played it really slow and explained it, put it on YouTube and said, ‘There you go.’
“And he learned it,” he continues, “but then 50,000 other people saw it and said, ‘Could you do some more?’ I did ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ after that, and another 50,000 saw it. So I did 10 lessons like that, and my friend said, ‘You should make a website for this.’”
So rayred.com was born, a free guitar-instruction site until changes in advertising revenue structure made it necessary to create a pay model. “People pay $12 for a year—I wanted to keep it essentially free, still—and they can access every song,” Ray says. “And if they have a problem with a song, maybe I’ll make a special video and email them. And if they can’t get it from them, maybe I’ll arrange something on Skype. I can get really personal with the people, I’ve met people from all over the world, and it’s really cool.”
Wherever he is, he’s playing a growing catalogue of covers. He cut his own album, Touching Indians, but it is his interpretations of others upon which so much of his fan base has been built. There is an art to covering songs, taking a classic or a new tune and making it one’s own. One of Ray’s signatures is the segue, a stylistic move that works in the intimate setting of one of his private-party gigs or at a public concert.
“I was playing Canada last week, and they call them mash-ups—I’d never heard that word before. I’m playing one song, go into another song, then come back to the original song. Or go two songs in, come back to the original song and keep going. It’s almost DJ-like, to go 12 minutes of 3 or 4 songs put together.”
You want one? Here you go: “A really cool one is ‘End of the World’ by REM, ‘Blister in the Sun’ by the Violent Femmes, ‘Rock and Roll’ by Led Zeppelin, back to ‘End of the World’ to finish up the song, then ‘Walking on Sunshine’ by Katrina and the Waves, and then ‘Going Up the Country’ by Canned Heat, then ‘Flip Flop and Fly’—I don’t know who did that one, that’s an old blues song from the ’50s.”
He pauses for a moment, then smiles. “The Doors’ ‘People are Strange’ and Cab Calloway’s ‘Minnie the Moocher’—nobody sees any of that coming.”
Audiences want to be surprised, kept on their toes. Give them something fresh and you give them a reason to keep coming back. Ray is taking this idea to a new level this summer, and not just in his act. This is something from Down Under. “I’ve been talking with the Montauk Chamber of Commerce about doing a public open mic in the green sometime in August,” he says. “I proposed it to them because I was hosting open mics in Australia, and they’re a blast. I said I’ll bring the gear out, I won’t charge for it, and we’ll have, say, 15 spots. We’ll get kids, we’ll get older folks, anybody, anything.”
And the songline will grow longer.