heathens

The Band of Heathens | Oriental Theater | 3/29/11

The Band of Heathens kicked off their West Coast tour on Tuesday at the Oriental Theater in Denver. The show also marked the release of the Americana rock band’s new LP Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son.

Band of Heathens new CD is 'Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster's Son'

2010 was a year of making noise and news for the Band of Heathens. With 200-plus show dates, a fifth anniversary celebration, appearances at Lollapalooza and other top national festivals and a taping of Austin City Limits with Elvis Costello, it is remarkable that the Heathens even found time to write and record a new studio album, but they did.

The result is Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son, a surprising, multi-faceted gem of a disc. Their third studio album and the fifth release overall, Top Hat Crown displays the wide range of classic influences fans and critics have come to admire in the band, yet they’ve added, built and grown. Producer George Reiff, celebrated for his work with the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, the Courtyard Hounds (Martie Maguire and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks) and Ray Wylie Hubbard, tended to the album’s vibe and spirit, which is reaching, rocking, bluesy, funky and enjoyable as hell, from its rocking opening to its serene acoustic conclusion.

The Band of Heathens is constantly being compared to The Band because of the musical finesse that overlays their timeless, rootsy core. And the three founding members are all skilled multi-instrumentalists who can play almost any position in the field. But TBoH has reached so many fans so fast because of the echoes of and subtle homage to so many different artists at the core of the Americana canon, including Tom Petty, Tony Joe White, the Grateful Dead, Leon Russell, George Harrison, and other rarified stylists. You can hear a little of all that at a Heathens show or on disc, and Top Hat Crown feels like the most coherent and mature encapsulation of those elements so far.

Given the timelessness of their sound, one gets the sense that Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist and Colin Brooks would have gravitated toward the same essential feel had they met in 1975 or 2045. As it happens, it was in 2006 after each songwriter had established residency gigs on the same night of the week at Momo’s, an eclectic-minded club on Austin’s famous Sixth Street. Friendship, semi-regular sit-ins and harmony jags gelled into something quite rare: a band with three frontmen, each with enough humility and passion to invest in the larger project. The sum transcended the parts. Bassist Seth Whitney was a member from the get-go. Drummer John Chipman joined in 2007 as their road calendar got heavier.

The Heathens took their time getting their first studio album out, but when that eponymous debut was released in 2008, they proved they could write and record a coherent statement that measured up to their show. They followed relatively quickly with One Foot in the Ether toward the end of 2009. Both shot to the top of the Americana chart and remained there for months, evincing a longevity rare in any format of music. Each added songs to the band’s set lists that have become staples and favorites: “Jackson Station,” “Cornbread,” frequent set closer “Don’t Call on Me” and the rocking, cathartic “L.A. County Blues.”

Other kinds of recognition and respect rolled in. TBoH was honored as Best New Band at the Austin Music Awards and nominated as Best Duo or Group by the Americana Music Awards. The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Fusilli called theirs the best set he saw during South by Southwest 2009. And the rest of the press has been equally effusive: The Dallas Morning News calls them “a must-see show.” Maverick magazine says they’re “magnificent.”

One can anticipate similar praise for Top Hat Crown, as it stretches without breaking faith with the feel and integrity that got the Band of Heathens this far. Opener “Medicine Man” sets a hoodoo tone with slappy upright piano and a swaggering lyric sung by Gordy Quist.

Another early Quist lead is “Polaroid,” which the guys say was influenced by the Jayhawks and mid-career Beatles. It coasts along on a robust acoustic strum decorated by jangly chiming electric guitar — a pluperfect fusion of pop and roots. Ed Jurdi gets his first lead vocal licks in with “Should Have Known,” a deeply bluesy slow shake that bolsters the regret of the song. Colin Brooks evokes current events and the craziness of modernity with “Enough,” whose mantra-like lyric and mid-tempo groove will have people nodding along in time. Brooks also shines with his lead on “Gravity,” a tour-de-force of forward motion and organ-generated psychedelic colors. Then some bone-rattle percussion ushers in a glowing, single-chord jam ride and a three-part chorus that swells with love.

Fans of the band will note one familiar song here. “Free Again” was written, recorded and released as a single in a blast of energy in the summer of 2010, inspired by the mind-boggling Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It’s sincere and sarcastic, playful and chastising. And it’s part of a Louisiana theme that closes out the album and ties the whole project together. “Hurricane,” the album’s lone cover, a Nashville-written tune from an old Levon Helm album, is a poignant portrait of an aging Gulf Coast salt reflecting on storms and eerily anticipating Katrina. And “Gris Gris Satchel,” the final cut, is a gorgeous and soothing acoustic tune that evokes old New Orleans and memories of great Crosby, Stills & Nash tracks.

Like that historic group, the Band of Heathens is distinguished by collaboration and load-sharing. And while songwriting and vocal duties are chiefly handled by the three guys across the front of the stage, they are decidedly a five-man band, benefitting from the equal input of all. This can lead to a lot of deliberation and creative tension. But it also means the music that emerges has been through five filters and enjoyed the collaborative creative power of five music-loving minds. “When I write a song with Ed or Colin, I usually hear it a certain way in my head,” says Quist about the power of the process. “When we bring it in to the band, the song almost always comes out turned on its head, leaning in another direction from where it started.” Music fans nationwide will hear that distilled quality upon the release of Top Hat Crown.

---

TOUR DATES:

Thurs., March 3  ANN ARBOR, MI
Fri., March 4  CHAMPAIGN, IL
Sat., March 5  ST LOUIS, MO
Fri., March  11  SAN ANTONIO, TX
Sat., March 12  DALLAS, TX
Tues., March 15  AUSTIN, TX (SXSW)
Sat., March 19  HOUSTON, TX
Tues., March 29   DENVER, CO
Wed., March 30   ASPEN, CO
Thurs., March 31   PARK CITY, UT
Fri., April 1  BOISE, ID
Sat., April 9  SANTA CRUZ, CA
Sun., April 10  SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Mon., April 11  FOLSOM, CA
Tues., April 12   BAKERSFIELD, CA
Wed., April 13   LOS ANGELES, CA
Thurs., April 14  PHOENIX, AZ
Sun., April 17  DRIFTWOOD, TX

THE BAND OF HEATHENS at Austin City Limits

The guys in the Band of Heathens are fond of saying they became a unit by accident. But that’s like saying the Big Bang was an accident. Unplanned, maybe, but hardly random. One might even argue that a kind of destiny was involved. The merger of singer/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist and Colin Brooks, with bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman, from their respective solo careers and bands may not be akin to a cosmic explosion, but their current album, One Foot in the Ether, offers irrefutable evidence that they were meant to be together — and have evolved into a solid entity worthy of the comparisons they receive to the Black Crowes, The Band and Little Feat.

One Foot in the Ether, released in September 2009, is the Band of Heathens’ strongest work so far. That’s saying something, considering their last three releases (two live and one studio) brought the band out from relative obscurity to playing 250-plus shows a year for their rabid fan base, as well as a coveted taping for the 35th Anniversary season of the Austin City Limits television program. Both their last album and One Foot in the Ether reached No. 1 on the Americana Music Association Radio chart. The last (eponymous) album earned the band an Americana Music Association Honors & Awards nomination for 2009 New Emerging Artist of the Year, with One Foot in the Ether clinching a 2010 Americana nomination for Best Duo or Group. The group took Best New Band honors at the 2007 Austin Music Awards, shortly after their current lineup came into place as the band morphed from a side-project to a cohesive tight unit. And the band significantly expanded its reach with recent appearances at Lollapalooza, Wakarusa and the Austin City Limits festival.

One listen to One Foot in the Ether makes apparent that the Heathens’ three-front-man approach to writing and performing over the past three years has paid off in the studio. Aside from the confidence necessary to pull off releasing two live albums before releasing a studio album, it’s evident that their unorthodox career strategy suits them well.

“The band doesn’t like to do things safely,” Quist explains about their aversion to using set lists, planned programming, or, for that matter, a planned career path. “Random and Chance might actually be named as extra band members in the liner notes somewhere.”

One Foot in the Ether was unplanned. The Heathens started booking short bursts of studio time in Austin while they were in town, with no producer and no expectations. They would just set up live in one room and push “record.” They weren’t intending to make a full-length album, but the muses felt otherwise.  As more and more songs started coming together, the band would layer other textures over the live performances to add depth to the sound. The guys say they were going for a specific sound, but letting things be loose and spontaneous was essential to capturing the group’s essence. As they went deeper into the sessions, the project went from the originally planned (or unplanned) three or four songs to 16 completed songs. “It became apparent that we had a full-length album on our hands and we started honing things down to make a cohesive album,” said Jurdi.

Not given to overly detailed explanations, the Band of Heathens loosely define the sound they’ve achieved on One Foot in the Ether simply as rock ’n’ roll. While the last Heathens album may have been slightly more acoustic and swampier, this album is heavier, both thematically and sonically. It’s muscular with electric guitars, Hammond organs, vintage electric pianos and pill-bottle slides, all fine ingredients for rock ’n’ roll in its purest form.

And rock ’n’ roll is all over this album, in tracks like the Gram-Parsons-meets-Neil-Young stomp “L.A. County Blues” (which pays tribute to the great writer Hunter S. Thompson), the New Orleans/Motown-influenced “Say,” and the Saturday-night gospel-meetin’ showstopper “Shine a Light.” Then there’s the back-alley sounds of “Golden Calf,” which, with a nod to Tom Waits, addresses the darker side of humanity; the hot-off-the-floor funk of “You’re Gonna Miss Me”; and four-on-the-floor six-minute-plus jam “Somebody Tell the Truth.” The hypnotic-sounding closing hymn, “Hey Rider,” is “a call for peace, within and without,” according to Brooks. The album contains one cover, the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings tune “Look at Miss Ohio.”  The record echoes the greats from Dylan to Waits and Townes Van Zandt to Otis Redding, but the band is drawing from the wellspring that is American music to forge something present and immediate and new.

With a five-album record deal offer from one of the major-independent record labels on the table, the Band of Heathens opted to remain indie, releasing One Foot in the Ether on their own BOH Records, just as they released their last self-titled studio album. Brooks explains, “In the current ‘climate change’ of the music business, nobody knows how it is going to work so we are not averse to trying things our own way and experimenting.”

The press has appreciated the Heathens’ approach. Maverick called One Foot in the Ether a “quality album from a quality group.” Blurt said: “An album that echoes their down-home resolve, One Foot in the Ether finds them putting their best foot forward.” The jam band ’zine Honest Tune declared: “One Foot in the Ether is an ever-evolving masterwork that gets better with every replay.” And according to hometown Austin Chronicle, “One Foot in the Ether is sure to reinforce the band's place in the Austin music scene . . . ready-made for sitting on the back porch with a cold beer, a rock ’n’ soul affair evocative of Little Feat, The Band and The Black Crowes.”

Notes Brooks, “We have three distinct writers/singers who share the front but make a unified sound, not unlike some bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the music was what drove the wheel, not the tabloid pop-star personality with a great rack. Don’t get me wrong: everybody loves boobs,” he adds, exhibiting a bit of the band’s characteristic deadpan humor. “The problem is, you can fake tits, but you can’t fake soul.”

No, you can’t fake soul. You just know it when you hear it.

Check out the Band of Heathens at Austin City Limits on October 8th @ 4:45 PM

The Band of Heathens: One Foot in the Ether

The Band of Heathens’ self-titled studio debut album brought the band from relative obscurity to playing 250-plus shows a year for their rabid fan base, as well as a coveted taping for this year’s 35th Anniversary season of Austin City Limits. The album hit No. 1 on the Americana Music Association Radio chart, spending two weeks in the top spot against formidable competition. It charted a total of 34 weeks in the U.S., held No. 1 for two months on the Euro-Americana chart, and was No. 8 on the AMA’s Top 100 albums of 2008 list. The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Fusilli wrote, “The Band of Heathens, an Austin-based group, played the best set I came across during my five nights in town (at SXSW 2009).”

band-of-heathensHow does a band follow a year like that? Indeed the bar has been set high. But one listen to the new album, One Foot in the Ether, due out September 15 on BOH Records through Redeye Distribution, makes apparent that the Heathens’ three-frontman approach to writing and performing over the past three years has paid off in the studio. Apart from the confidence necessary to pull off releasing two live albums before releasing 2008’s debut studio record, it’s evident that their unorthodox career strategy suits them well.

“The band doesn’t do things safely,” explains Gordy Quist, one of the group's three frontmen. “Random and Chance might actually be named as extra band members in the liner notes somewhere.”

The guys in the band are fond of saying they became a unit by accident. But that’s like saying the Big Bang was an accident: unplanned, maybe, but hardly random. The merger of three singers/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists — Quist, Ed Jurdi and Colin Brooks — resulted in a solid entity worthy of the comparisons the band receives to the Black Crowes, The Band and Little Feat.

One Foot in the Ether wasn't initially conceived as a full-length album, but the muses felt otherwise.  The band started booking short bursts of studio time in Austin while they were in town, with no producer and no expectations. As they continued deeper into the sessions, the project went from the originally planned (or un-planned) three to four songs to 16 completed songs. “It became apparent that we had a full-length album on our hands and started honing things down to make a cohesive album,” Jurdi said.

Not given to labeling their music, The Band of Heathens loosely define the sound they’ve achieved on One Foot in the Ether simply as rock ‘n’ roll. While the last Heathens album might have been more acoustic and swampier, this album is heavier — both thematically and sonically. It’s muscular with guitars, Hammond organs, vintage electric pianos and pill-bottle slides — all fine ingredients for rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form.

With a five-album record deal offer from one of the major-independent record labels on the table, The Band of Heathens opted to release the new album on their own BOH Records, just as they did their last self-titled studio album that won the accolades. Brooks explains, “In the current ‘climate change’ of the music business, nobody knows how it is going to work so we are not averse to trying things our own way and experimenting.”

The year ahead holds much promise, starting with the worldwide September 15 release of One Foot in the Ether. In July, the band taped Austin City Limits, an opportunity that came to them when the program’s producer, Terry Lickona, first saw the group at the Americana Music Conference last September. He was amused that he’d traveled 1,200 miles to discover a band that lived in his backyard. The ACL episode also features Elvis Costello and will air November 7. The band will tour Europe in fall, following a Ryman Auditorium appearance the American Music Awards on September 17. And then it’s time to log miles on the odometer as they cross America for the rest of the year and into next.