The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When it broke up in 1982, the North Star Band was playing more than 300 shows a year. The country group is back with a new release.

The members of the recently re-formed North Star Band. From left: Lou Hager, Gantt Mann Kushner, Al Johnson, Jim Robeson, David Watt Besley and Jay Jessup. Not pictured is drummer Paul Goldstein. (William R. Reckert)
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They call it “the difficult third album.” That’s when a band can’t quite figure out what comes after its debut and its sophomore release. The members of the North Star Band solved that particular problem by breaking up after recording their third album but before releasing it.

“Gigs were drying up, things were stale,” said Al Johnson, who founded the D.C.-based country rock band in 1975. “We had seven years together.”

Seven years of playing in clubs up and down the East Coast, more than 300 gigs a year, with residencies at places like Desperado’s in Georgetown and the Annandale Bar and Grille in Northern Virginia.

After the North Star Band blinked out in 1982, its players scattered. But the stars aligned for a new double-CD release, half old material and half new. Appropriately enough, it’s called “Then & Now.”

“Can you believe it? Forty years,” said Johnson, the singer/guitarist who founded the band when he was in his second year of law school at Georgetown.

In 2018, the members were coaxed out of retirement to play a show at the Birchmere celebrating Desperado’s, the M Street NW club that had been one of their favorite venues. It was supposed to be a one-off.

“We came in from various parts of the country, rehearsed for a couple of days, and just fell in love with the band,” said Johnson, 71.

“It was like there weren’t 35 or 40 years between the last time we played,” said drummer Paul Goldstein, 67. “We used to play 330 times a year. We played all the time and so for us to get back together was such a joy to me. I hadn’t played with these guys in such a long time.”

After the North Star Band broke up, Goldstein, who lives in Monrovia, Md., kept playing in other bands, earning a steady income first as a real estate agent, then as a notary closer. (“When you refinance a house, I’m the one that comes to your house.”)

Johnson played locally in the Pheromones in the 1980s, then moved to Palm Beach County, Fla., where he is now chief assistant state attorney.

The band’s pedal steel player, Jay Jessup, returned to Charlottesville, where he helps run the Pepsi-Cola bottling company his grandfather founded in 1908.

Back in 1982, the band — which included singer and pianist Lou Hager and bassist David Watt Besley — had spent time at Track Recorders in Silver Spring working on a third album. Those old sessions were unearthed and remixed for the 10-song “Then” portion of the new album. The “Now” half was recorded at Tonal Park Studios in Takoma Park, with the contributions of guitarist Gantt Mann Kushner and bassist Jim Robeson.

It’s a delightful package, with tight harmonies, shimmery pedal steel and a driving beat. You can see why the band was so popular 40 years ago.

“That’s when you could be in a band and play original stuff all over the country and you'd have a crowd,” said Johnson. “We didn't have the Internet. We had to go hump it live and do live shows to get fans.”

Johnson said he doesn’t have a logical explanation for why he wound up leading a country band. He was raised in Brooklyn, the “North” of the band’s name. His first introduction to country music was hearing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

“I heard that song in that movie and I fell in love with the banjo,” he said. “I remember specifically. It was almost like I was reincarnated as someone from the Grand Ole Opry.”

The musical landscape has changed a lot in 40 years. Why try again?

“I'm going to borrow kind of a cliche: It's really for the love of the game,” said Johnson. “We don't know what's going to happen.”

Goldstein says he hopes the North Star Band can leverage the new release to play some theaters.

“We’re not looking to be superstars or anything,” he said. But a nice, tight 90-minute set at a theater has more appeal than four hours at a bar, the sort of thing they once did regularly.

“Hopefully this will allow us to do that,” Goldstein said.

The drummer does have fond memories of the heights the band once reached.

“By the time we ended, we had a Winnebago and an equipment truck — and roadies,” he said. “Roadies were the best thing ever, John.”

The North Star Band — thenorthstarband.com — plays the Birchmere on May 6 with the Billy Price Band.

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