WILMINGTON, NC — “It’s tremendously gratifying when you get to look out from the stage and see that everyone is having fun, having a good time. You get to see people singing along, dancing, just letting go and enjoying themselves.”
It’s Saturday afternoon at the Wilmington Distillery, and The Clams are on stage. Since 2006, in one form or another, this band with its eclectic rock-and-roll, with a side of jam, and an occasional country tune, has been a staple on the local music scene.
The five members of the group will tell you that the crowd, more than the musicians, dictates whether a gig is a success. If they are having a good time, then that’s really all that matters.
At the Distillery, this past Saturday, the fun atmosphere is in part created by a young man who came to the show with his mother.
“I was playing right by the door, and I could see him out of the corner of my eye,” said lead guitarist Si Cantwell. “I am not sure if he was on the Autism Spectrum, but it was clear he had some developmental issue and I realized he was reaching for my guitar.”
Perhaps for any other local band, a moment like this could have been a big deal. You do not interrupt someone on stage. But Si immediately recognized what was going on; the young man wasn’t trying to steal the instrument, he just wanted to connect to the music – to touch the guitar, to maybe feel the vibration and the rhythm in a way that made it more tangible.
“As he reached out, I just gave him this big smile, and he smiled back. He really was enjoying himself. He was having a good time. And that’s what it’s all about.”
This is a story about a man who not only loves where he lives but has also dedicated his life to serving his community. If the name Si Cantwell sounds familiar, simply put; it should. He was a long-time newspaper man working as a copy editor and columnist. He’s also a community activist who every year helps plan the Veterans Day Parade, and most recently, he’s been named to the committee that will oversee the Azalea Parade.
Si has called Wilmington home since he moved here in 1990. He knows everyone in town. He’s covered all the movers and shakers. And these days, with The Clams, he is creating an atmosphere where others get to move and shake.
“My mom bought me my first guitar with S & H Green Stamps; I was probably around 10. It was a nylon string. I had a book with a chord diagrams, and I basically taught myself.”
Even though he was introduced to music at a young age, Si Cantwell never once thought of it as a future career. He always knew that he was destined to be a writer. Journalism became his calling. Directly out of college, he got a job with the Charlotte Observer. Eleven years later, he was moving east to Wilmington and a job with the Star News.
On the surface, music and journalism may not seem like they have a lot in common, but look deeper, and you will find a few connections. Both of them are creative outlets, of course, but in Si’s case, one has directly inspired the other. Some of the stories he’s covered as a reporter have become the topics of the music he’s written and created years later. For instance, he’s done a lot of reporting on the Shrimping Industry, especially in the Varnamtown area. He was thinking about the faces, he was remembering their struggle when he put pen to paper and wrote an original song.
“It’s called the Shrimp Boat Blues. It’s about a guy who lost his boat and doesn’t know how he is going to provide for his family. It’s in D minor – which is probably the saddest of all chords.”
Typically Si’s music is much less dramatic and more upbeat. He prefers silly lighthearted songs. There’s one called the Zombie Shuffle which was inspired by a column he wrote on a Sci-Fi movie project being shot in town. There’s another called Hot Sauce Blues – which is a humorous look at a guy trying to pick up a woman.
“It’s all storytelling – music and journalism. Even when you are playing lead to someone else’s song, you’re kind of making a statement and telling a story.”
The relationships that make up a band can be complicated. In the worst of cases, egos clash, and the creativity is stifled. Bands like that almost never last.
In the best scenarios, a deep bond develops. In the case of The Clams, it truly is a band of brothers. And when you’ve been together as long as they have, you realize you’re not just making music but you’re actually doing life together.
“There’s been a lot of life changes. We are definitely a source of strength and support for one another. We are all close friends, and there is a lot of love there.”
For most of its 17 years in existence, the Clams have had the same core members. Tucker Hill is on the drums. Jeff Sanchez plays rhythm guitar and is the lead vocal on most of the group’s songs. Dylan Lee is on the bass. Si is on lead guitar and occasionally provides vocals. Those four have been together – with the occasional break here and there – since the beginning. (Stuart Ross, the keyboardist, joined the group earlier this year but fits right into the brotherhood.)
Together they have witnessed the birth of children, endured illnesses in each other’s families, and even celebrated when Si retired from the paper.
Yes, there have been disagreements, some friction, maybe even an argument. But it’s never gotten too heated, and it’s never threatened the band. You see, when your main expectation is just to have a good time, and to create an environment where others are having a good time, then it’s impossible to take anything too seriously.
“Music keeps me young. It keeps us young. When you’re playing with other people you have to listen, you have to be engaged. You can’t just turn up your amp and play away. You’ve got to be in the flow of the music and you’ve got to be a part of the band.”
The Clams next scheduled performance is this Wednesday, November 22, at 7pm at Fermental.
You can follow The Clams on their Facebook Page
Sample The Clams music, including Si’s Zombie Shuffle here.
Picture of Si playing the guitar was taken by Bill Auth
Picture of The Clams was taken by Si’s wife Maria Cantwell