Heavy music

Balkun Brothers play two Cisco shows

Appears in 11 July 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene

Fuhgeddabout Greta Van Fleet, veering from homage to pastiche as it attempts to be the next Zeppelin; the future of rock and roll past is Balkun Brothers. The Connecticut sibling duo’s sound is a molten melting pot of blues, punk, metal and psychedelic swamp boogie. It’s how the Black Keys with Johnny Winter and Lemmy Kilmister might have sounded.

Steve and Nick Balkun have lately stamped their passports at many key stops on the sonic highways. They jammed with Watermelon Slim in Clarksdale, Mississippi, visited Jim Morrison’s Paris grave, cut a live LP in Memphis at Sun Studio, and played the Mountain Jam Festival.

For the two, it’s a journey of both creation and experience.

“We’re fans first,” Nick said by telephone while driving to Summerfest in Milwaukee and a gig opening for Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson. “You just get a respect for what it is to be in an underground art form – rock and blues is very underground in my opinion. I like studying all about the old blues and rock guys. We’re huge fans of the genres that we’re in; we’re living it.”

Balkun Brothers are a two-man band for the same reason they’re rooted in the blues – necessity and sheer will. “The only club around us in Hartford that would let underage musicians into the open mics,” Nick said, was a blues joint. “If we wanted to play live and get our chops, we had to go there.”

The duo move happened after multiple tries to augment Steve’s guitar and Nick’s drums failed. Bass players either quit from exhaustion or got fired; different combos sputtered. “We had a horn section, other guitar players, we had a five-piece band for a while,” Nick said. “Then we had a bassist on a tour opening for Eric Sardinas, a huge influence of ours. He kept getting drunk every night, and we were like, ‘screw this – we’re just going to be a duo.’”

They’d just been signed to a French blues label, who loved the idea, “because it would be cheaper to put us on tour as a two piece,” Nick said, adding that they faced a few challenges in the new stripped down format. “We both have to play leads now. I have to play a lot more, do more double bass, more stuff that is really full sounding.”

His brother, a certified luthier, got to work. “Steve built himself two custom baritone guitars that have dual outputs so he goes to a bass amp and guitar amp and cranks them up to a million,” Nick said. “I have a drum machine too, so we have some crazy stuff going on onstage. It sounds like at least a three person band.”

Because they’re as honest as they are relentless, some gadgetry is verboten. “We improvise way too much to loop,” Nick said. “The most exciting part of a show for us can be writing songs on stage… we do it all the time, every night. Looping can be awesome, too but it’s just not our thing.”

A new studio album was just completed, produced by Steve Albini, who worked with Nirvana, Fugazi, The Breeders, Iggy and many more. Due for release early next year, it ups the ante for the already intense band. The title track, “Here Comes The End Of The World,” is jet-fueled punk fury at its finest. The other six songs don’t pull any punches either.  

The forthcoming disc was mastered at Third Man Records, and when the two arrived in Detroit to complete it, they were greeted with some news. “Jack White was at the studio, and the producer was like, ‘hey man, just wanted to let you know the boss is here,’” Nick recalled; they’d been double booked.

White  broke the ice by coming over to say hello. “He was super cool, and apologized about interrupting our session with his producer. So we got some magical rock and roll dust sprinkled on the album.”

Balkun Brothers

When: Friday and Saturday, July 12 & 13, 7 p.m.

Where: Cisco Brewers, 35 Corporate Dr, Pease International Tradeport, Portsmouth

More: balkunbrothers.com

Family Band

“…hardscrabble poetry, with a finger on the pulse of profound realities contained in ordinary struggles.”

On the road with Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope at Pickathon 2018

There’s a moment in the 2014 documentary The Ballad of Shovels and Rope when Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst sit at a kitchen table and muse upon what success might bring. “I’d like to see the world… and have it be paid for by a song,” Hearst says. “The ultimate goal is to keep on being able to do it, keep on liking to do it, so we don’t have to do something else to be happy.”

Trent agrees. “It’d be nice to make a living at it,” he adds, “maybe have some rug rats; curtain climbers.” Hearst smiles beatifically in response, her back to a wall decorated with hand drawn band logos and photos from the road.

With tenacity, it all came true.

The scene was from 2010; two years later, the duo’s debut album O’ Be Joyful was released, and the autobiographical “Birmingham” helped bring their dream to life. The tune won Song of The Year at the 2013 Americana Music Awards; it depicts the desire required to break through in a grave new world of streams and social media. “Making something out of nothing with a scratcher and our hope,” they sing, “with two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”

It was hardscrabble poetry, with a finger on the pulse of profound realities contained in ordinary struggles.

Shovels & Rope have since made three studio albums. The last two, 2016’s Little Seeds and the newly released By Blood, reflect their lives as parents to a three-old daughter and newborn son. One song on the new LP tells the story of a magical horse reuniting torn apart families; “C’mon Utah” will become a children’s book later this year.

With prescience typical for a duo that filmed its rise while one of them still had a day job, the tune came before news of border camps and cages caught the public eye. “Michael brought that song to the pile really early in the writing process,” Hearst said during a recent joint interview. “At the time there wasn’t an epidemic of families being separated from their children.”

In the futuristic tale, a wall has been built and fallen; in its wake, the lost wander the rubble looking for loved ones. “Our vision was that it would be a story that folks would be telling their kids around a campfire,” Hearst continued. “To ease their anxiety in the night, like, ‘don’t worry, there’s this magic horse… he knows how to find who you’re looking for.’”

Puerto Rican artist Julio Cotto Rivera is illustrating the book. “His drawings are awesome, unique – extreme symbolism,” Hearst said. “It’s suitable to read to children but more like an art book or graphic novelette… in theory it will be out before the end of the summer.”

Currently, the duo are opening for Tedeschi Trucks Band as part of their annual Wheels of Soul tour. Michael and Cary Ann’s  kids are with them on the bus, with a nanny. “The first one broke us in the saddle pretty well, so two hasn’t been a huge change on the road,” Hearst said when asked how it was going. “It’s more interesting at home because we don’t have any help.”

That last point was felt during recording of By Blood. To better focus, the two built a separate studio outside their house.

“It was our responsibility to ourselves,” Trent said. “The last record was a big time learning experience. With Little Seeds, we had a little person for the first time in our house, and the scheduling was a little bit jarring… We thought, ‘oh, yeah, we’ll just have a neighbor come over and they’ll hold the baby for two hours while we go up and cut the vocals.’ Just because the neighbor is holding the baby doesn’t mean that the baby isn’t screaming in the next room.”

“The first one was a crier,” Hearst interjected. “We should predicate.”

“Anyway,” Trent continued, “we’ve gotten a little bit savvy over the past few years and figured out how to balance regular lives with making music. It’s tricky, but totally doable.”

When: Saturday, July 13, 7 p.m.

Wheels of Soul 2019

Where: Bank of NH Pavilion, 72 Meadowbrook Lane, Gilford

More: $39.75 – $135.75 at banknhpavilion.com

Fire starters

Rising star band Honeysuckle celebrate new release

Deft instrumental interplay, gorgeous three-part harmonies, preternatural timing; Honeysuckle possess all the elements of a stellar acoustic roots band. Four consecutive Boston Music Award nominations, culminating with a win in 2018, and a nod from NPR (2016 Bands to Watch So Far) are among the accolades backing up this notion.

On the just released third LP, Fire Starter, there’s extra mojo as the band – Holly McGarry, Chris Bloniarz and Benjamin Burns – probe the modern world with stunning emotional intelligence. Take “I Love My Phone,” which complains about how technology begets alienation – “illuminated faces I used to know” – but ultimately takes a longer view.

The McGarry written “To The Grave” describes a buried secret and wonders if it’s held out of courage or cruelty, finally unburdening it with a declaration that, “time won’t heal you.”  Another, “We’ll Die Young,” is a 27 Club bit of gallows humor wrapped around memories of friendship. On it, the three voices melt together like fine whiskey, sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters.

The closest thing to a love song is “MissYou,” a rocked-up kiss-off that starts the new album.

“Thematically, we write about relationships, but typically the non-romantic kind,” McGarry explained in a recent phone interview. “A lot of mine is processing family… Ben is writing more about some friendships that have impacted him in a similar way. It’s not just blood family that shapes you, but that chosen family as well.”

Honeysuckle came together at Berklee College of Music. McGarry grew up in Sand Point, a musically rich town in the Idaho panhandle. She began gigging in her teens, playing shows with Shook Twins, a popular local band, planning to continue after high school. Until her father mentioned that Gillian Welch, her favorite songwriter, was a Berklee alum, and suggested she apply.

“It felt like an on a whim thing, this huge music college so far from home but I thought why not? They offered me a partial scholarship, so at that point it seemed like it would be silly not to give it a try. I was very lucky, but it was… a really hard year of being so far from home.”

McGarry and Burns began writing together for school projects, and she started dating Bloniarz; the two men are in a band called Grey Season. They came together as a trio organically, McGarry recalled, when Burns played a harmonized line in a song and Bloniarz jumped in with his instrument, and an a-ha moment happened. “There was this third part that we didn’t know was missing until we heard it instrumentally and vocally.”

Early on, Honeysuckle reworked many of McGarry’s songs – she’d released two solo albums before coming to Berklee – with unified results. “Chris and Ben play off each other in a really interesting way,” McGarry said. “The interplay between the two of them and what they’ve done arranging wise is what really made it a band instead of just solo artists with guest musicians. It’s just as much theirs as it is mine now.”

McGarry is also glad for being able to share the ups and downs of touring. “At a festival you’ll get a thunderstorm, or your car’s gonna break down on the way to the biggest gig of your life,” she said. “It’s more fun to be in a band than solo when something goes wrong… otherwise, you’ve got no one to laugh it off with; you have to sit and carry it.”

Cohesiveness rises to another level on Fire Starter. “I actually did more cowriting on this record with Chris; in the past it was more Ben and I collaborating,” McGarry said. “It’s been really interesting because Chris comes from a little different musical background, a little more rocking, I guess. He loves Metallica, unlike Ben and I. It’s brought a slightly different flavor to things… which is sort of fun.”

Brotherly Love – Edgar Winter remembers Johnny in tribute album

Memories abound as the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches. Edgar Winter sees the three-day festival as a catalyst for his career. At the time, he was a member of his brother Johnny’s band, but had no real ambitions of his own. Then he stepped on stage and everything changed.

“I just remember this moment of looking out over this endless sea of humanity and thinking ‘wow, this is really something amazing,’” Winter said in a recent phone interview. “Just the whole thing being set against the social backdrop of the civil rights and the peace movement. Seeing all those people united, brought together in that unique way just changed my whole perspective on music.”

It was a “transformative moment,” he continued. “I decided I would really apply myself, and that’s when I got interested not just in the type of music that I would play for my own enjoyment – which wasn’t going to find much of an audience – but thinking about communication, other than just something to satisfy myself.”

Growing up in Texas, the two brothers jammed together from an early age. Johnny emerged as an ace guitarist; Edgar did the rest. “I was the weird kid that played all the instruments,” he said. “I liked to figure out the arrangements and show everyone what to play. There wasn’t any sibling rivalry; I just loved music in and of itself, not as a means to an end.”

“I just loved music in and of itself, not as a means to an end.”

Johnny, though, wanted to be a star, and desire led him to New York City. Edgar followed. He expected the music scene there to intimidate him, but something else happened. He found a new appreciation for his home state. “I had no understanding of what a special area that was musically,” he said. “Real cowboys playing country music, authentic old blues guys; it’s close to the Mexican border, so you’ve got hot Latin rhythm players.”

He also spent a lot of time in Louisiana, with its adventurous music and 18 year old drinking age. “The Bible Belt is a couple of notches looser there,” he said with a laugh. “We called the French Cajun sound swamp music, and then the term Zydeco came into vogue. I loved all that New Orleans stuff as well, Dr. John & Allen Toussaint. And North Texas is a great music school, with an infusion of really educated musicians… it’s all indigenous music, it’s real.”

The most important factor remains his older brother, who passed away in 2014. “He and I were so close as kids,” he said. “We did everything together, and he’s my all-time musical hero. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am. I might have been a struggling jazz musician, an engineer, or a teacher.

Edgar is now at work on a tribute album, something he resisted doing for many years. “I always got the feeling that it was business people that wanted to exploit Johnny’s name and memory and I didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” he said. Bruce Quarto, a rock fan who made millions in technology and used it to start a record label, changed his mind. “He wanted to do it for all the right reasons.”

An all-star cast includes fellow Texan Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Joe Walsh, Edgar’s old bandmate Rick Derringer, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Slash and Joe Bonamassa. He’s excited to add Buddy Guy and singer Bobby Rush – “I wanted to do a tribute to Muddy, which I know Johnny would have wanted, and the whole Chicago blues thing,” he said. “I decided to do ‘Mojo,’ which is pretty much a Muddy signature song.”

Also on board for a duet are Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, along with veteran guitarists Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. There is no release date for the ever-expanding effort. “Bruce said to do as much as we want; we’ve got 16 songs and may wind up recording more,” Winter said, adding he’d love to get Jeff Beck.

“When Johnny passed away it was so totally unexpected,” he continued. “Playing his music turned out to be a great source of strength and healing to me… making this album is totally a joyous experience; it’s really something I feel I was meant to do, and I haven’t had that feeling in a long time.”

Edgar Winter performs Sunday, June 23, 7 p.m. at Tupelo Music Hall (10 A Street, Derry) . Tickets are $40-$45 at tupelohall.com

This story appears in the June 20, 2019 issue of Hippo Press

Rising Above – The indefatigable MB Padfield

What does it take to be a musician? That’s an oft-heard question, but equally important is another: Is there anything that  could cause a performer to give up and walk away? For MB Padfield, the answer is an emphatic no. 

Adversity simply made Padfield’s psychic fingertips more calloused and ready for the fretboard of life. She was playing full-time in her teens, becoming a habitué of bars she couldn’t drink in, and battling alcoholism anyway. A year and a half ago, she put her belongings in a U-Haul and moved to Los Angeles, only to have her life’s work stolen when she arrived. 

It’s all she ever wanted – a life in music.

The experiences merely made Padfield double down on the only plan she was certain life had for her. Now over five years sober, she’s juggling a career that includes playing gigs and recording her own music while jingle writing and performing behind the scenes of countless endeavors that quietly pay the bills.

It’s all she ever wanted – a life in music.

Recently, Padfield posted a short manifesto on her Facebook page, writing of struggle and triumph – the Berklee professor who tried shaming her into another career, and the sweet taste of financial independence she left in his wake. “I’ve played 1000+ shows. Yes, really. You’ve probably heard my writing/voice/work and have had no idea,” she said, ending joyfully, “we’re just getting started – don’t sleep.”

Bravado aside, losing all her songwriting to a thief was a hard blow, Padfield recalled in a recent phone interview. “I was pretty depressed,” she said. “When you have stacks of notebooks, you’ll remember some stuff, but you’re never going to write that same song twice – and why would you ?  You’ve already created it.”

She bounced back by plunging into unknown territory. With the help of musician friend Joe Sambo, she got work singing on commercials. “I started getting more involved with them, then I was in their audio department, writing jingles, learning how to craft the choruses,” she said, adding, “the world of advertising is very similar to writing pop music.”

Her credits include two spots for Subaru, commercials in Japan, and most recently a Mickey Mouse 90thBirthday ad for Disney that’s also running in Japan. “I’m tapping into a lot of different music income streams,” Padfield said. “It all pieces together to let me do what I do.”

That “do” is making her own music, which is a challenge amidst relentless gigging. “What some people don’t necessarily understand is how creatively demanding writing is,” she said. “I can’t play six nights a week AND write… that’s how we get a lot of really sad songs about being on the road.”

One solution is coming back home to New England for a marathon of performing every summer. From the start of June until mid-September, Padfield has no fewer than 83 appearances booked, including nearly two dozen at Bernie’s Beach Bar in Hampton (if any club owners are reading, she’d love a Wednesday residency – hit her up on mbpadfield.com).

“It’s very hard, and obviously I’m a one woman operation,” she explained. “I don’t necessarily have a couple band mates that I can delegate tasks to either, which has its pros and cons. But it’s very difficult for me to be creative to the level that I want… of course, I could write whatever, but I want to write stuff that I am passionate about.”

Playing mostly cover songs on the beach, Padfield uses a loop pedal and changes up her set list frequently to keep things interesting. She plays requests, and loves to be thanked with largesse. “The tip jar pays my groceries, helps get my songs mixed,” she said. “I really want to take things to the next level, and I’m completely unable to do that without people.”

This story appears in the June 20, 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene

Roots Preview

As he begins an early May phone interview, Hayes Carll is in a good place – watching his soon-to-be stepson John Henry Earle play baseball at a game that pairs special needs kids with other players. John Henry, who is autistic, gets a base hit, and cheering interrupts the conversation.

Hayes Carll

Two days later, Carll married longtime partner Allison Moorer – John Henry’s mother; also the producer and cowriter of over half the songs on his critically lauded new album. After a week-long UK tour, the new family moved from New York City to Nashville.

Combining music and romance is new for Carll. “I’ve never been in a relationship like that with another writer and artist,” he said. “It turns out that a lot of time is spent talking about your art and your craft… she was the person [with] the best understanding of what I was trying to do and articulate. She also happens to be a badass artist.”

Carll’s 2016 LP Lovers and Leavers reflected the pain of recent divorce. What It Is, released early this year, is upbeat and smiling, from the playful opener “None Ya” to “I Will Stay,” a tender love song closing things out. “The result’s a more joyful record… there are a lot of positives happening for me right now. I’m glad it can be reflected in the music.”

A songwriter known for hard luck stories laced with humor like “She Left Me For Jesus,” Carll’s most recent work comes from a more personal place. “Trying to get to where I was writing from the inside out instead of outside in,” he explained. “In the past it always started with some detail… hoping that it sounded cool and sunk up with my life in some way. More recently, I’ve been trying to get to the heart of it, and say what it is that I’m feeling.”

He hits the current political climate from a few different angles. The rocking “Times Like These” snarks about whining billionaires, while offering a unifying message. “That song is just born out of frustration,” Carll said. “We have more in common than what separates us, and I just think it’s our elected officials’ responsibility to highlight that.”

“Fragile Men” sparked rancor for its blunt chorus – “the whole world is exploding/and I know it feels so strange/it must make you so damn angry/they’re expecting you to change” – among other things.  A co-write with pop singer LOLO, it originally took on patriarchy, then was rewritten after events unfolded in Charlottesville and released in April 2017, along  with a Klan-mocking video.

“It got a surprising amount of blowback,” Carll said. “From people saying I was overinflating the issue, that racism and the like is not actually a real thing, it’s just the media’s blown it into something and I’m just furthering that narrative. It was a lot of talking points from a certain sect basically telling me to shut up [and] it was disappointing to realize that’s a fairly prevalent belief for a lot of people, including some of my fans.”

On What It Is, Carll offers his own version of “Jesus and Elvis,” first recorded by Kenny Chesney. It’s a song about a real place with a perhaps apocryphal story.

“I’ve done some research after the fact and I’m not sure,” he said. “But there’s a bar in Austin called Lola’s that I used to hang out in when I lived there, with Christmas lights up year round and a jukebox in the corner with nothing on it past 1968. The story I heard was Lola had a son that had gone to fight in Vietnam at Christmas time, and she promised she would not take the lights down until he made it back home… they’re still up there.”

At an upcoming New Hampshire show, Carll will perform with his trio – drummer Mike Meadows and Travis Linville, a singer/songwriter and guitarist who also plays an opening set. The next day, he’ll headline the Roots on the River Festival in Bellows Falls, Vermont.

The latter event jump started Carll’s career when he first played it in 2008. “I was mostly in Texas then,” he said. “I’d done an out of state tour, but it had been more like a long trip with an occasional stop that nobody showed up at. A friend talked me into going up there; I wasn’t even booked [and] it opened up a whole touring world for me.”

Home on the road – Rockwood Taylor

Lynne Taylor and Charlie Rockwood Farr met in a band and bonded over a love of touring. A recent phone interview with the duo, who perform as Rockwood Taylor, fittingly occurred as they drove down a long stretch of Ohio highway, and was punctuated by sightings from the road. 

“Oh, look, the ‘Hell Is Real’ sign!” exclaimed Taylor as they passed a famous billboard on I-71, reading from it as they passed, “How will you spend eternity?”

Their ultimate destination was The Purple Fiddle, a West Virginia hill country venue that’s a perfect fit for the pair’s mix of Shovels & Rope rusticity and singer/songwriter emotion. After a show there, it’s back to Newburyport, where they both live, and a celebratory release party for their first record together, Finding Home.

The EP’s four songs brim with melancholy and remembrance. “Heading Home” is a co-write set in the twilight of living, but there’s a fondness in the narrator’s resignation: “It’s been a good life, now I’m headed home,” he sings. 

“It’s sad but restful, an old guy sitting on the porch playing his guitar,” Farr explained. “We built the song around that and came up with some imagery of what his life would be. It’s melancholy, but whatever happens in life there’s the next step. It’s going back home, end of life reflecting – I was trying to look at that in a positive way.”

The EP’s title came after the collection was done. They realized that although the songs were about dusty memories, like “You Remember Me,” written by Taylor about her childhood piano, or escaping, as in Farr’s train song “Steel Wheels,” each was connected to home; both as an ideal and a place. 

“I’ve lived many lifetimes in one life, musically as well,” Taylor said. “I started out in a punk band, I’ve done all kinds of rock, bluegrass, alt country – it’s always this constant search for home, and that’s where the title came from. It’s interesting to me how that sort of presented itself organically.”

Even the wanderlust that causes them to tour whenever they have the chance is reflected, Farr said. “We’re finding home in all kinds of places on the road.”

Moving between the frenetic energy of punk and the gentleness of what they do now isn’t a stretch, Taylor insists. “When you think about it, folk music is really punk music,” she said. “It’s simple chords, direct messages, and if you want to go back to the protest and social commentary in folk music, which is where I come from, that’s what it is in punk.”

The two have played Newburyport Brewery many times, from when they were the rhythm section of Liz Frame & the Kickers to their time in other bands, like the punky, now defunct Halo and the Harlots, and River Valley Ramblers, an ongoing bluegrass band comprised of teachers at the charter school where Taylor works. 

Still, the release show is extra special. “It’s gonna be great to play one of our favorite local venues as Rockwood Taylor, and release the EP to our friends and fans; that’s what we’re looking forward to,” Taylor said, adding gleefully, “andwe’ve got t-shirts! It’s my first time having a band t-shirt.”

The shirt, like the albums’ cover, is adorned with a woodcut of a high flying bird carrying the band’s name on a banner in its beak, gliding past a setting sun. Drawn by local artist Patrick Pollard, it’s a wonderful depiction of the duo’s outlook. Pollard is, coincidentally, currently exhibiting his folk art at the Brewery.

For the release show, Rockwood Taylor will be joined by a percussionist, “and some other guest artists,” Farr said.