Original sounds revolve in Vaughan Burton’s mind, and the guitarist/composer/session musician says that sometimes the only way to wash away the swirling music is to actually play it.
Such is the case with Burton’s ‘Croquet’, a rock opera based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. He had been making the music and lyrics for this progressive rock composition for quite some time, so it’s been on his mind for a long time.
Now it’s time to perform “Croquet”.
Burton and his band, Dream of Maya, will present the premiere of “Croquet” at the West Windsor Arts Center on Alexander Road in Princeton Junction on Saturday, November 6. All proceeds from the concert benefit West Windsor Arts.
“This is the first time I will ever perform the entire (piece) live; it’s never been done all the way to the finish,” said Burton, a Robbinsville resident. “Hopefully this will prevent it from swimming in my head.”
Dream of Maya is a mix of musicians from New Jersey, plus a friend who flew over from North Carolina especially for the concert.
In addition to Burton on electric guitar and vocals, the band consists of Jeff Epenshade on electric bass, 12-string guitar and additional vocals, Jeff’s son, Sebastian Epenshade, on electric bass (both are from Delran), Ben Kaplan of Mount Holly on drums, West Windsor resident Cecelia Tepping on lead vocals and flute, and Paul Hunnemann on keyboards and guitar. Hunnemann is the one flying to New Jersey from North Carolina, where he and Burton had been friends for a long time.
With Pink Floyd’s guitarist/singer/songwriter David Gilmour as a major influence, Burton says he may have unwittingly created “Croquet” with similarities to Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall.” Floyd’s “Animals” (based on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”) is also an influence.
However, Burton says “Croquet” may be closer to Alan Parsons Project’s “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” or Jeff Wayne’s “Musical Version of The War of the Worlds” than “The Wall.”
With lush synthesizers, acoustic guitar, flute and excellent drumming, this listener and prog rock fan heard traces of Rush or early Genesis in the song “Alice in the Garden” from “Croquet”.
“Drink Me” sounds a bit like the band Renaissance, or maybe one of the more sedate Yes songs. As a singer, Burton’s voice may remind you of the late Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), or, more likely, Pink Floyd’s Gilmour.
You can definitely hear that Burton has listened to and recorded some of the best prog rock guitarists – Gilmour again, but also Alex Lifeson of Rush and Steve Rothery of Marillion. He also cites Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult and Andy Latimer of Camel as influences.
Tepping, a veteran of regional music theater and opera, does a wonderful job with the vocals on “I Hardly Know Me”. She was almost not part of the project, but Burton remembered her talents and got in touch.
Tepping is another acquaintance from years ago. Burton says he and she met through Bristol Myers Squibb’s daycare – his wife Lori was and still works at BMS. Burton and Tepping both had children there and he learned that Tepping could really sing.
“We’ve talked about it, but we never got together,” he says. “I had chosen someone else to sing the Alice parts (from ‘Croquet’), but he dropped out. I then remembered Cecelia and emailed her. We hadn’t spoken in years, but she was interested and excited about the project.”
“Cecelia had never worked with us before, and it’s great to have her,” says Burton. “She and everyone else work very hard, they all contributed. (Everyone) has an uncanny sense of what works, and I don’t have to give them direction, they come up with their own ideas.”
Burton has put a lot of thought into the exact classification of ‘Croquet’. Is it a rock opera, or more of a concept album?
“‘Croquet’ isn’t rock opera in the theatrical sense (not yet anyway), but I like the term,” he says. “It applies especially to the way it was used on the original concept album for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, the one with Ian Gillan as Jesus. That is the album that preceded all stage productions.”
“I’ve thought about calling ‘Croquet’ an art rock opera, but I don’t want it to sound too pretentious either,” he adds. “I’ve also considered (Richard) Wagner’s term, ‘musical drama’. But I’ve stayed with rock opera for the most part.”
Burton is looking forward to the release of an album of the same name in the spring of 2022 by Dream of Maya, which will include a series of songs from “Croquet” and a handful of other work by himself and Paul Hunnemann. The album will feature numerous special guests, including Albert Bouchard of Blue Oyster Cult and Canadian singer-songwriter Lily Frost.
In 2020, Burton collaborated with Bouchard on ‘Re Imaginos’ (a reworked version of BOC’s 1988 concept album ‘Imaginos’), contributing a guitar track. More recently, Burton’s guitar can be heard on “Imaginos Volume II: Bombs Over Germany”, currently available digitally, and on CD November 5 (at the time of writing).
(Burton talks about this accidental collaboration with Bouchard in a Dec. 9, 2020 “Interchange” column for US 1.)
Born in Cartersville, Georgia, in 1966, Burton was first introduced to rock and prog through his neighbor’s records. Most notably, he remembers hearing “On the Threshold of a Dream” by the Moody Blues up close, and shortly after buying his first LP, Elton John’s “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.” His brother Chuck was also a big influence on Burton’s taste in music.
Not much later, he owned a copy of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” – a rather mature but decisive purchase for a child.
“I persuaded my mother to buy me ‘Dark Side’ when she thought I had no idea what I wanted,” Burton says. “Now my parents are Floyd fans too.”
The family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where Burton’s father worked at Blue Bell, the maker of Wrangler jeans, and his mother was a receptionist at a law firm. Burton has taken both classical and non-classical guitar lessons for about four years. (He teaches himself, in addition to performing and recording.)
He attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, graduating in 1989 with a BA in Art.
Burton came to New Jersey in 1996 when his wife, Lori, took a job at BMS. The couple have two sons, Michael, a freshman at Rutgers, and Christopher, who is a junior at Robbinsville High School.
ASCAP-affiliated, multi-talented Burton has played on the same program as an impressive roster of musicians, supporting names such as Tom Brislin (of Kansas, Yes, Camel and Meatloaf); Blood Sweat and tears; Trisha Jaarhout; The Subdudes and Aquarium Rescue Unit. In addition to Bouchard, he has worked directly with Spirits Burning and Michael Moorcock, as well as internationally acclaimed songwriter Steve Fields.
One of his proudest collaborations was with Frost, the Canadian singer and composer whose music was featured in the television shows ‘Charmed’, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and the 2001 feature film ‘Crazy/Beautiful’.
“I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time and I wrote to her after seeing on her website that she offers songwriting sessions,” Burton says. “I asked if she wanted to do some Zoom songwriting lessons and studied with her for a few months. We wrote a song together, which will actually be released next year. She also sings on it; it is a great privilege to mention her as a mentor and collaborator.”
Burton, who spent many years as a graphic artist for publications in and around Princeton (currently at Witherspoon Media Group/Town Topics), was working at US 1/Community News Service when he realized the Arts Center was on its way to and from the work.
“The volunteer work at the Arts Center came about because I had a day off in the week at the time,” he says. “The arts have always meant a lot to me, and the West Windsor Arts Center was between work and home. I just wanted to do something art related on my days off, so I would spend a few hours at the Center on some of those days.”
“I have a background in visual and performing arts, so I cherish them both,” he says. “Arts organizations have become much more dependent on their donors during the pandemic, not only due to the lack of events, but also due to the lack of classes and summer camps.”
Writing “Croquet” was completed before the pandemic, Burton says, adding that the closing was a particularly productive period for him musically. It was also around this time that Burton got the idea to perform “Croquet” live at the Arts Center and turn it into a benefit.
“Initially, I emailed (director of operations) Kay Kalawar of the Arts Center, but was later contacted via email by (executive director) Aylin Green, and both were enthusiastic about my idea,” he says.
Burton says “Croquet” was not written to be a commercial venture.
“I never wrote to make money, and I never will,” he says. “I’ve been a semi-professional musician on occasion, but I’ve never approached music as a profession – it’s a passion. Music is a reward in itself. So performing ‘Croquet’ for the benefit of the arts is the perfect way to premiere it.”
Croquet, music, and lyrics by Vaughan Burton, performed by Dream of Maya, at the West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, Saturday, Nov. 6, 7 p.m. $20 to $25. Open to the public. Proceeds benefit West Windsor Arts. 609-716-1931 or www.westwindsorarts.org.
Vaughan Burton on the web at soundcloud.com/vaughan-burton.