Original sounds spin around in Vaughan Burton’s mind, and the guitarist/composer/session musician says sometimes the only way to flush out the swirling music is to actually play it.
Such is the case with Burton’s “Croquet,” a rock opera based on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll. He’d been crafting the music and lyrics for this progressive rock composition for quite a while, so it’s been in his ear for ages.
Now it’s time for “Croquet” to be performed.
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 will benefit West Windsor Arts.
“This is the first time I will ever perform the whole (piece) live; it’s never been done straight through to the finish,” says Burton, a resident of Robbinsville. “Hopefully, this will stop it from swimming in my head.”
Dream of Maya is a mixture of New Jersey musicians, plus one friend flying up from North Carolina just for the concert.
In addition to Burton on electric guitar and lead vocals, the band includes 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 were longtime friends.
With guitarist/singer/songwriter David Gilmour of Pink Floyd as a major influence, Burton says that he may have subconsciously 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” might be closer to “Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” by the Alan Parsons Project, 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 little like the band Renaissance, or maybe one of the more sedate Yes songs. As a vocalist, Burton’s voice might remind you of the late Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), or, more likely, Gilmour of Pink Floyd.
You can definitely hear that Burton has listened to and absorbed 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 musical theatre and opera, does a gorgeous job with the vocals on “I Hardly Know Me.” She almost wasn’t a 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 is employed at BMS. Burton and Tepping both had children there, and he learned that Tepping could really sing.
“We used to talk about it, but we never got together,” he says. “I had chosen someone else to sing the Alice parts (of ‘Croquet’), but that person dropped out. I then remembered Cecelia and emailed her. We hadn’t talked in years, but she was interested and excited about the project.”
“Cecelia had never worked with us, and it’s great having her,” Burton says. “She and all the others are working really 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 ideas on their own.”
Burton has given much thought to the exact classification of “Croquet.” Is it a rock opera, or more like a concept album?
“‘Croquet’ isn’t a rock opera in the theatrical sense (not yet anyway), but I like the term,” he says. “It especially applies in the way that it was used on the original concept album for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ the one with Ian Gillan as Jesus. That’s the album that preceded all the 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 considered (Richard) Wagner’s term, ‘musical drama,’ too. But I’ve stuck with rock opera for the most part.”
Burton looks forward to Dream of Maya releasing an eponymous album in the spring of 2022, with a suite of songs from “Croquet” as well as a handful of other works 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. And, even more recently, Burton’s guitar can be heard on “Imaginos Volume II: Bombs Over Germany,” currently available digitally, and on CD November 5 (as of this writing).
(Burton tells about this serendipitous collaboration with Bouchard in a December 9, 2020 “Interchange” column for U.S. 1.)
Born in Cartersville, Georgia, in 1966, Burton was first introduced to rock and prog by his neighbor’s records. He particularly remembers hearing the Moody Blues’ “On the Threshold of a Dream” wafting over from nearby, and soon after, buying his first LP, Elton John’s “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.” His brother Chuck also greatly influenced Burton’s musical taste.
It wasn’t much later when he owned a copy of “The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd — a rather mature but decisive purchase for a kid.
“I coaxed my mom into buying ‘Dark Side’ for me when she thought I had no idea about what I was wanting,” Burton says. “Now my parents are Floyd fans, too.”
The family relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina, where Burton’s father worked at Blue Bell, the maker of Wrangler jeans, and his mom was a receptionist at a law firm. Burton took both classical and non-classical guitar lessons for about four years. (He himself teaches, in addition to performing and recording.)
He attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, graduating with a BA in Art, in 1989.
Burton came to New Jersey in 1996, when his wife, Lori, took a job with BMS. The couple has two sons, Michael, a first-year student at Rutgers, and Christopher, who is a junior at Robbinsville High School.
The ASCAP-affiliated, multi-talented Burton has played on the same bill as an impressive array of musicians, supporting such names as Tom Brislin (of Kansas, Yes, Camel, and Meatloaf); Blood, Sweat and Tears; Trisha Yearwood; The Subdudes, and Aquarium Rescue Unit. In addition to Bouchard, he has directly collaborated with Spirits Burning and Michael Moorcock as well as internationally acclaimed songwriter Steve Fields.
One of his proudest collaborations was with Frost, the Canadian chanteuse and composer whose music was featured in television shows “Charmed,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and the 2001 feature film “Crazy/Beautiful.”
“I’m a longtime fan of hers, and I wrote to her after seeing on her website that she offers songwriting sessions,” Burton says. “I asked if she would be willing to do some Zoom songwriting classes and studied with her for a few months. We co-wrote a song, which is, in fact, coming out next year. She sings on it too; it’s a great privilege to cite her as a mentor and collaborator.”
Burton, who has worked for years as a graphic artist at publications in and around Princeton (currently at Witherspoon Media Group/Town Topics), was employed at U.S. 1/Community News Service, when he realized the Arts Center was on the way to and from work.
“Volunteering at the Arts Center came about because I had a day off during 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 on my days off that was connected with the arts, so I would spend a few hours at the Center on some of those days.”
“I have backgrounds in visual and performing arts, so I cherish them both,” he says. “Arts organizations have had to rely much more on their donors during the pandemic, not only because of the lack of events, but also due to the lack of classes and summer camps.”
The writing of “Croquet” was completed before the pandemic, Burton says, adding that the shutdown was an especially productive period for him musically. It was also around this time when Burton got the idea to perform “Croquet” live at the Arts Center and make it a benefit.
“I initially emailed (director of operations) Kay Kalawar at the Arts Center, but was later contacted by (executive director) Aylin Green via email, and both were enthusiastic about my idea,” he says.
Burton says that “Croquet” wasn’t written to be a commercial venture.
“I’ve never written for the purpose of making money, and I never will,” he says. “I’ve been a semi-professional musician off and on, but I’ve never approached music as a profession — it’s a passion. Music is a reward in and of itself. So, performing ‘Croquet’ to benefit 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, November 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.