Rich Mercurio

The seasoned New York–based sticksman hits the road with rock royalty.

This past May 3, the longtime Bruce Springsteen collaborator Steven Van Zandt released Summer of Sorcery, his first album of new material in more than twenty years. Now on a monster run that lasts through November, the singer/guitarist will be touring in support of the soul-infused rock ’n’ roll effort. The Broadway and New York–session vet Rich Mercurio, who’s been playing with Van Zandt for the past few years and recorded Summer of Sorcery, joins him live behind the skins.

Along with the Disciples gig, Mercurio holds the chair on the Broadway show Waitress, which was written by Sara Bareilles, and he performs regularly with the vocalist, actress, and songwriter Idina Menzel, among other session gigs and tribute bands. “Somehow I’ve managed to keep all of those things rolling,” Mercurio says. “Once in a while things work, you know? [laughs] There have been a couple tricky moments, but I feel fortunate to be able to work on other projects while I’m here in town.”

Mercurio stresses that to get the Van Zandt gig, he had to be out playing all the time. “I was gigging with a blues band here in New York with a sax player who’s a friend,” he says. “One night I got text from him at 1 A.M. ‘Hey, man, are you available for a session tomorrow morning at 10:30?’ I have a recording studio here in town, and I had my own session at my place the next day. I said, ‘Jesus, I don’t know if I can cover it. What is it?’ He said it was a session for Steven Van Zandt. I said, ‘Yep, I’ll be there.’ [laughs] It was for a Darlene Love record that Steven was producing, and I ended up doing maybe nine tracks on it over the next week.”

Mercurio says that a year later, another friend, guitarist Marc Ribler, had become Van Zandt’s music director. When the group needed a drummer, Ribler called. “It just kind of happened,” Mercurio says. “But there are no tricks to the game. You just get out there and try to play good music with good people, and that’s how things can happen.”

On the road with Van Zandt, Mercurio tells MD that it’s the most physically demanding gig he’s ever had. “We play for two hours and forty minutes,” he explains. “And when one song ends, we go right into the next one. There are maybe one or two spots in the set to rest. And when Steven comes onstage and he’s in front of you, it’s like you’re now officially with a rock star. He has a command and a presence up there that’s awe-inspiring. It brings out everything you have—and some stuff that you didn’t even know you had.”

To handle the gig, Mercurio maintains a twenty- to thirty-minute warm-up routine before each show. “I also go to the gym and keep in shape,” he says. “Soundcheck with Steven could be a half hour, or it could be two and a half hours. You just never know if we’re going to rehearse one song for a live album or learn a new song, so the soundcheck is full-blown, and you might as well be playing the gig. You’re playing at that intensity level with him, because that’s what that gig demands.”

Mercurio shares similar drumming influences with Van Zandt, such as Gary Chester, Hal Blaine, and Buddy Saltzman. “I mean, you listen to the tracks with those guys, and what those drummers have done speaks for itself,” he explains. “And Steven has an incredible ability to know where simple, classic grooves and fills belong. There’s a great language between the two of us. Now we’ll do a record and in rehearsal, he’ll just turn around and move his hand a certain way, and there are no discussions. We can just start playing, and it sounds like us. Especially if you’re a sideman by trade, having something like that is pretty rare.” Live, Mercurio learned a few lessons powering Van Zandt’s fifteen-piece band. “It’s a freight train, and you better be the guy who’s driving,” he says. “There’s stuff going on all over the place. You have to stay the course and be strong, and be responsive when necessary. But you have to help keep this thing moving along so that everybody has something to hold onto. This slick little drum fill that you thought was cool all of a sudden isn’t, because when you hear it recorded, it doesn’t really set something up as well as you thought it did. Subtlety is sometimes overrated, and little things might not translate. In a fifteen-piece band, whatever you do, it better be strong. People better know it’s there.”

Rich Mercurio plays Yamaha drums and Zildjian cymbals, and he uses Vic Firth sticks, Remo heads, and Ultimate Ears monitors.

Also on the Road

Jason JT Thomas and Louis Cato with Snarky Puppy /// Josh Eppard with Coheed and Cambria /// Brann Dailor with Mastodon /// Clayton Holyoak with Every Time I Die /// Josh Dun with Twenty One Pilots /// Jon Fishman with Phish