It was May Day in 1970, and a crowd of nearly 20,000 packed the New Haven green, eager for music and inspiration. National Guardsmen ringed the perimeter, charged with keeping order in a highly combustible atmosphere. The unmistakable scent of tear gas lingered in the air. Across the street, Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale was on trial for his life, accused of murder. The shootings at Kent State and the invasion of Cambodia fueled protests that had led to a student strike at Yale University.
And on the green, on a windy spring day in New Haven, James “JP” Connell and Reid Spencer performed together for the first time as members of the band Milkweed, opening for Elephant’s Memory, best known as the backup band for John Lennon and Yoko Ono. That first gig launched an odyssey that would continue for more than two years. Milkweed, featuring a combination of Yale graduates and dropouts, headed to North Carolina.
About 10 weeks later, in July 1970, the band—then composed of Connell on lead vocals, Spencer on bass and vocals, Mat Kastner on guitar, Thom Macdonald on drums, and Stormin’ Norman Zamcheck on keyboards and vocals—played the opening set at the Love Valley Pop Festival, headlined by the Allman Brothers. After a move to Atlanta later that year, Milkweed toured the Southeast, building a regional following while sharing stages with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Al Kooper, John Hammond Jr., the Hampton Grease Band, Wet Willie, and Randall Bramblett.
(The photo at the left features four members of the 1970 Milkweed lineup: from left, Reid Spencer, Mat Kastner, James "JP" Connell and Norm Zamcheck.)
Personnel came and went. Kastner and Zamcheck departed. John Daniel left Wesleyan College and joined the band on bass. Spencer moved to guitar. Milkweed added Marvin Jackson on lead guitar, to be replaced in that role by Pat Alger, who later would write four of Garth Brooks’ No. 1 singles.
In the summer of 1972 Milkweed recorded an album, sensitively titled, Midgets Stand Tall, featuring original folk, country, and rock tunes songs written primarily by Connell and Spencer. Kastner and Zamcheck returned to Atlanta to play on the album. After the final recording session, the band broke up.
Spencer returned to Yale, where he and Kastner were founding members of Karen & the Pistons, a popular rhythm-and-blues band on the New England nightclub circuit. After six months, Daniel joined the band. Connell returned to his native New Jersey, where he taught music to Special Education students before embarking on an academic career that would lead to a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. At a Karen & the Pistons performance in Princeton, N.J., in 1974, Connell and Spencer saw each other for the last time until 40 more years had passed.
The summer of 2013 marked the beginning of a chain of circumstances that brought the two old friends together again. Spencer posted one of his songs from the Milkweed album, “Granma Country,” on iTunes. Connell had moved to Orcas Island in Washington State, and on Christmas night in 2013 he recalled the Milkweed days to a group of friends over dinner. One of those friends resolved to find something about the band on the Internet and located Spencer’s only-recently posted Milkweed song, which also featured an album cover with then-22-year-old, 6’1”, 115-pound Connell.
Connell, who had just put the finishing touches on a CD of his own songs titled Early Lessons, tracked Spencer down through online sources and invited him to come to Orcas to play with other local musicians at the CD release party. That reunion proved the inspiration for a collection of new songs by Connell and Spencer, as well as the impetus for the project that became Breakfast at Sunset, combining the new songs with several previously unrecorded Milkweed tunes from the 1970s.
Daniel and Kastner were recruited to play on the sessions at Bredouw’s Barn, a professional studio on Orcas Island, and both made important contributions to the ensemble, which also featured the formidable chops of multi-instrumentalist Martin Lund.
In July 2015, the recording was complete and old friendships rediscovered and strengthened. We hope you enjoy listening to this music as much as we enjoyed creating it.
James Connell and Reid Spencer