via The Daily Record
They’ve never had a hit song. They’ve never won a Grammy. They’ve never been the subject of a popular movie. They’ve never even appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Aztec Two-Step is (from left) Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman. / File photo
But against all odds, Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman — who record and perform as Aztec Two-Step — have managed to stay together as a band since 1971.
The duo’s 40th anniversary tour will take them to the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship Friday (Aug. 12) after previous stops at the Strand Center for the Arts in Lakewood and the Sanctuary Concerts series at the Presbyterian Church in Chatham.
To hear Fowler explain it in an interview earlier this year, Aztec Two-Step came together almost by accident. In 1971, he was playing the Stone Phoenix, a club in Boston that would showcase as many as 12 acts in one night.
“You had to get there in time to be in one of the Top 12 spots,’’ he said. “One night, Neal and I were the last two.’’
Practically from the beginning, the two musicians were in sync.
“I had been looking for someone to accompany,’’ Fowler said. “I heard Neal jamming, and I thought, this guy is good. Later I found out he had been looking for someone to play with.’’
“Neal was 17, and I was the old man at 23,’’ Fowler said with a laugh. “We fit each other to a T.’’
Within a year, Aztec Two-Step (taking its name from beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti) released its debut album.
The folky harmonies, spare acoustic arrangements and literate lyrics made Aztec Two-Step something of an oddity from the start.
“Over the years, we released 12 to 15 singles, and not one charted,” he says. (A 1999 documentary about the band that aired on PBS was rather pointedly titled “No-Hit Wonder.”)
Nonetheless, Fowler and Shulman found a devoted following.
“We had what were called turntable hits,” Fowler said. Songs such as “The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On the Road)” became staples of college stations and what was then known as “progressive’’ radio.
Aztec Two-Step also earned a reputation as a solid live act.
“When I played by myself, I’d get “golf applause,’ ’’ Fowler said. “When Neal and I got on stage together, I felt like The Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ Audiences responded immediately.
In some ways, the lack of a popular single is liberating, according to Fowler.
“We don’t have that canon of hits that would make us a nostalgia act,’’ he said. “We’re able to play new material and keep (those songs) in the repertoire.” That means that a setlist of an Aztec Two-Step concert is likely to include not only songs from the early 1970s but also tracks from the 1986 album “Living in America’’ (which garnered a New York Music Award for best folk album) and the 2004 release “Days of Horses.’’
Aztec Two-Step’s most recent studio album was “Time It Was: The Simon & Garfunkel Songbook’’ in 2008.
“When we started, Simon and Garfunkel had already broken up, and we were often compared to them,’’ Fowler says. “We resisted that at first, but 35 years into our career, it seemed like a no-brainer to do a tribute to them.’’
Fowler and Shulman have pursued various side projects over the years. Fowler produced a documentary about Elvis Presley called “200 Cadillacs,’’ as well as “Imagined: The John Lennon Song Project.’’ The latter CD, a collection of covers of Lennon songs, was nominated for an Independent Music Award.
Still, neither Fowler nor Shulman seems interested in dissolving Aztec Two-Step.
“I want to say how delighted we are that people still consider us relevant,’’ Fowler said. “People do want to hear certain (older) songs, but they accept the new songs. They’re still entertained by our interaction on stage.”