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Howard Iceberg surrounds himself with gritty virtuosity on new album

Howard Iceberg: “I wanted to feature this group of people who I think are stellar musicians and who, because of the fields they labor in, fly under the radar sometimes, I think.”
Howard Iceberg: “I wanted to feature this group of people who I think are stellar musicians and who, because of the fields they labor in, fly under the radar sometimes, I think.”

Howard Iceberg has been writing and recording music for decades. A prolific songwriter, he has composed hundreds of songs and recorded them with dozens of Kansas City musicians. Among them: “Welcome Aboard,” an ambitious seven-volume collection of his songs, released in 2011.

But it wasn’t until last year that Iceberg decided to compile something of a bucket list of projects to work on and musicians to work with.

Monday night at the Brick, 1727 McGee St., he will release the first of those, “Kansas City Songs.” The project’s intent: Focus on his early country and folk leanings and record with musicians he’d wanted to work with for a while.

“I write a lot in different styles, and most of the stuff I put out on albums fits into a category of, I don’t know, maybe songwriter rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “I wanted to do work with some of the folk and country musicians in town, and there is a core of them in Rural Grit that I wanted to work with, starting off with Betse (Ellis) and Phil (Wade) from the Wilders. I always liked them and always wanted to write songs for them or travel with them.”

Rural Grit is a loose confederation of musicians that assembles each Monday at the Brick for the Rural Grit Happy Hour. Many of the regulars, like Ellis, Clarke Wyatt, Brett Hodges and Chad Brothers, are seasoned musicians.

“I wanted to feature this group of people who I think are stellar musicians and who, because of the fields they labor in, fly under the radar sometimes, I think,” Iceberg said. “If they lived in Brooklyn or Austin or L.A., you’d hear a lot more about some of them.”

Iceberg brought into the studio music that influenced him: early country, folk, blues, bluegrass and other songs he felt would suit the musicians’ styles.

“I went through my stashes, looking specifically for songs that were more rootsy,” he said.

The album was recorded over a weekend, something new for Iceberg.

“I’d never before tried to record an album straight through,” he said. “This was kind of like that Uncle Tupelo album (‘March 16-20, 1992’).”

Iceberg wrote all the songs, but the rest of the project was collaborative.

“These people I worked with are virtuosos,” he said. “They were all champs. One song we played in two totally different styles: a slow waltz and a rip-roaring bluegrass song. And though I wrote all the songs, that is melody and lyrics, they had good ideas for arrangements and things like that.”

Brothers said Iceberg was interested in full collaboration from the jump, encouraging the other musicians to tinker with arrangements and take lead in songs he had written.

“We all leaned on each other in the studio, throwing suggestions back and forth often,” Brothers said. “Betse, Clarke, Brett and I have all jammed together in various projects over the years, so there was no shortage of chemistry between us when it came time to rehearse and record. We all had a blast working together.”

Ellis, who has toured internationally with Wyatt as the duo Betse & Clarke, said the project gave her a chance to work within a band again.

“Whether it is a full-time project or a unique situation, the goal is to be cohesive, considerate, creative and to have less ego and more concern for serving the songs,” she said. “And since Howard is among my favorite songwriters of all time, this experience reminded me how much I still have to learn.”

About a dozen other well-known musicians contributed to “Songs,” including Johnny Hamil, Mike Ireland, Dan Mesh, Kasey Rausch, Mikal Shapiro and Josh Mobley.

Copies of “Kansas City Songs” will be available Monday at the Rural Grit Happy Hour, which will be the beneficiary of all sales.

“I’m just going to bring a stack and say, ‘Pay what you want,’ ” Iceberg said. “They can use an upgrade in some of their equipment, mics and other things, so I wanted to make this a benefit for the Rural Grit program.”

Iceberg is already prepared to move on to his next project, a foray into jazz.

“I already have another CD’s worth of stuff that’s completely different,” he said. “I studied the American Songbook to try to expand my palette, as far as chords go. The day after the Rural Grit show, I’m cutting demos for what I hope will be a group of jazz musicians.”

In April, Iceberg retired after 42 years in law, 35 as an immigration attorney.

“I’m still finishing up a few cases, and other people call me every so often and I give them advice or send them to someone else,” he said. “But I’m not going into the office these days. I had some medical things intervene that clarified my retirement.”

He has also slowed his involvement with his band, the Titanics.

“I told the Titanics a couple of years ago that I only wanted to play two or three shows a year,” he said. “Sometimes someone contacts us about a gig and sometimes we say yes, sometimes we say no. But I’m not setting up any gigs myself. Really, at this point, I’m more focused on getting out the stuff I want to get out.”

Iceberg estimated he has about 300 songs just sitting around.

“Some I’ll get to, some I won’t,” he said.

Some of those he gets to will likely be part of a purpose or fulfill some goal.

“As I get closer to the end of things and farther from the beginning,” he said, “I want to work with people I admire who aren’t part of my band.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain


Howard Iceberg will perform Monday during this week’s Rural Grit Happy Hour, which is 6-9 p.m. at the Brick, 1727 McGee St.