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.”