Sheldon Gomberg (l) and Ron Sexsmith
Photo: Penelope Fortier
The Sweet Relief Musicians Fund (sweetrelief.org) has been aiding artists with disabilities for 20 years. The organization’s concerts, events and record releases have featured performances by the likes of R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, Lucinda Williams and so many more. It’s one of the ways that the generous, talented music community takes care of its own members, like Sheldon Gomberg.
Gomberg has been an in-demand bassist in the L.A. scene for years; his credits include Rickie Lee Jones, Ryan Adams, Five for Fighting, Warren Zevon and many others. But recently, he’s focused increasingly on the production side. He suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and has built a new musical career that can thrive despite his physical limits.
“When I first started seeing symptoms of it, I had trouble walking,” Gomberg says. “When I got to using a scooter, I couldn’t get up the stairs into my house. Sweet Relief helped put a lift in so I can get inside, which was a big thing for me. I started to think about how I could repay them somehow.”
Gomberg offered to invite some of the talented musicians in his extended circle to make the organization’s first benefit album since 1996’s Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation. He engineered and produced Sweet Relief III: Pennies From Heaven (Vanguard), which features Ron Sexsmith, Shelby Lynne, She & Him, Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones, Ben Harper, k.d. lang and others.
Gomberg worked off his own wish list of artists, and put together a collection of songs with a theme of helping others. Some singers chose songs from his list, while others ordered off the menu, but all recorded with Gomberg in his studio, The Carriage House.
“That was one thing I was adamant about because I wanted there to be some sonic consistency,” he says. “I didn’t use the same mics on everybody, but the room sound and, I suppose just working with the same person, me, creates some continuity.”
The opening track on the album is Sexsmith’s poignant rendition of “Pennies From Heaven.” “I asked if Ron would do it, and his manager said, ‘Let me email him.’ In an hour, Ron had emailed me and said, ‘I’d love to do this.’ That’s the spirit! He was like, ‘I can be there in two weeks.’”
Gomberg tracked Sexsmith and keyboard player Will Gramling to Pro Tools, with Sexsmith singing into an RCA 44 through a BA6A compressor and playing acoustic guitar to an AKG C12A. Gramling played a pump organ that was captured with a Royer R-122 ribbon mic. The lovely strings on the track were recorded after Sexsmith’s whirlwind visit. “That kicked off the whole record,” Gomberg says.
Lynne sings track 2 on the album, “Brother Where Are You?” by the great artist/composer Oscar Brown Jr. This was one of two songs (along with She & Him’s “King of the Road”) that were tracked to a Studer A80 machine. “She sang live with the band Jack Shit, which is Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher [drums and bass, respectively, both of Elvis Costello’s Imposters] and [guitarist/singer/Jackson Browne bandmember] Val McCallum. She walked out into the room, they started running the song, and I looked at Jason Gossman, who works with me, and said, ‘Roll tape.’ At that same moment, she looked up and said, ‘Are we rolling?’ I nodded, you heard the tape start up, and Pete counted us in, and the whole thing was live in one take. That was it. She’s so great.”
Photo: Marco Franchina
Sessions for Pennies From Heaven happened in fits and starts over a couple of years, as schedules allowed, and each track had its own memorable qualities. For example, Ben Harper’s track—the Van Morrison song “Crazy Love”—included an X-factor that a musicologist like Harper was bound to appreciate: “I’m friends with Gary Mallaber, who’s a great drummer and vibraphonist; he’s played with Steve Miller, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, and he played with Van Morrison for nine records,” Gomberg says. “I called Gary and so we got the original guy who played vibes on Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ to play on Ben’s version. Ben was so excited. That song was all cut live as well, except for the vibes.”
Some of the other stellar moments on the record come via songs that artists chose for themselves, such as k.d. lang’s shimmering take on Merle Haggard’s “How Did You Find Me Here?” or Rickie Lee Jones’ “Surfer Girl.” The Beach Boys classic doesn’t exactly match Gomberg’s theme, yet the words sound so tender and full of love when Jones sings them, the song magically fits. Both of these artists sang into U 47s, with lang’s chain including an 1176 and Jones’ a 1073 with no compression. “Rickie hates compression on her voice,” Gomberg says.
Just as lovely is a piano-and-voice interpretation of Randy Newman’s “I’ll Be Home” by Eleni Mandell. “She came in and sang live—a 47 through an 1176—with Steve Gregoropoulos on piano, and then we overdubbed a kick drum [also by Gregoropoulos] and some background vocals by Eleni and Penelope Fortier later,” Gomberg says. All of the artists on the album donated their efforts to this worthy cause, many because of their connection to Gomberg.
“Sheldon is great to work with,” Mandell says. “He’s so knowledgeable and he’s never the ‘bossman’ as a producer. He’s in the trenches with the artist and wants everyone to have a good time and feel creative. We’ve known each other a long time, and it’s been tragic but also very inspiring to watch him: the way he handles [his illness], the way he manages to work so much and be so good to me and other artists.”