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Re-Birth: The Iconic Cleveland Improvising Trio Returns to the Happy Dog

Birth Josh Smith, Jeremy Bleich Joe Tomino
from left: Josh Smith, Jeremy Bleich, Joe Tomino

If you were born any time after 1975, you couldn’t avoid Jefferson Starship’s spectacularly dreadful “We Built This City on Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Even if that lyrical flex were true, it pales before the real-life exploits of the band Birth, who built the stage at one of the city’s great rock landmarks, literally. Next Saturday, the Cleveland-born band will return to that stage for the first time in many years, not with power tools, but with their instruments, for a long-overdue homecoming gig at the Happy Dog.

“The original owner, Billy Scanlon, was a Birth fan,” said Joe Tomino, the band’s drummer.” We played quite a few shows there before there was a stage and, Josh [Smith] and his dad helped build that stage.”

That’s not all they were building at the Dog. The improvising trio of Tomino, saxophonist Smith and bassist Jeremy Bleich were at the center of an emerging scene at the West Side venue. “It was a time and place that was so special,” Tomino remembered.”We played with a bunch of different bands [and] it wasn’t always this jazz groups. We played with some electronic music, which was big at that point. The jam band scene was taking off and we didn’t fit into any of that stuff. It was that sort of language that we built with music that we’re listening to at the time. That was a great, great time, the late ’90s, early 2000s.”

Those years saw the band touring, making records and playing with musicians and bands from a dizzying array of genres, a great time, for sure. Then in 2004 the members went their separate ways. Smith left for the Bay Area where he played with artists as diverse as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, bluegrass musician Peter Rowan and reed master Ben Goldberg. Bleich decamped for New Mexico to write music for Wise Fool New Mexico, a community arts organization while Tomino headed for New York and gigs with Matisyahu and the Dub Trio that continued even after he and his family returned to Cleveland in 2015.

Birth at Bop Stop
Birth at Bop Stop, December 27, 2019

Birth, which had been on hiatus for 11 years, resumed playing, and in 2019, recording. “Almost Never,” released that year, was Birth’s first release in 15 years. A release party gig at the Bop Stop two days after Christmas promised a busy year ahead and then, all of a sudden, opportunities to play came along . . . well, almost never.

“I was touring right up until COVID, mostly with Dub Trio, a little bit of Matisyahu. We were out with Incubus, and we did Japan and toured Europe–and Gogol Bordello,” Tomino said. “When COVID hit most of the playing I did for that first year was mostly with just [guitarist Mike] Sopko. Mike and I would play socially distant parties or livestream gigs.” Tomino also joined Hello 3D, a Cleveland band Tomino describes as “great players who do psych cumbia, ’60s Peruvian style.”

Birth played a bit too, four gigs in 2021 by Tomino’s reckoning. Though some might call the band’s music free jazz, there are recognizable and often quite lyrical melodies. Song forms may be well concealed, but they lurk deep in the background. Bleich often plays swanlike sustained tones and Smith’s style has a definite vocal quality, though more Eddie Vedder than Eddie Vinson. Tomino is everywhere, incorporating electronics and real-time sampling into a seemingly endless bag of rhythmic tricks that incorporates Jamaican one-drop to jungle to the pulsing explorations of jazz drummer Milford Graves.

Lately, though, the band’s approach has changed subtly. “When we got back together in my basement [we] just improvised, not even trying to play the old compositions or tunes,” Tomino said. “We got together a few times for several hours in my basement and just played, just improvised all afternoon long. And somehow that’s kind of seeped its way into our live shows.”

Expect to hear that kind of freedom when Birth reconvenes at the Dog. And love. You’ll hear that too.

“I love the intimacy of the Happy Dog, and I think that’s where a lot of improvisational music shines,” Tomino said. “When the crowd is really close to you, the energy is visceral, because you could feel it You could reach out and touch somebody and that’s what’s great about that space.”

Birth Friday, April 1, music begins after 9 p.m. at the Happy Dog, 5801 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. Tickets, $10, will be available at the door, but can be purchased online here. All ages.