Mates of down-home states

Pub date August 14, 2007
WriterTodd Lavoie
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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I might as well just fess up and own it: as much as I love the concrete and anonymity of the city, I’ll always remain a country boy at heart. I grew up in a town of 2,000 people, where everyone knew one another’s business. Intimately. Moose in the backyard were a regular occurrence. Country music was everywhere. Potato-sack racing and the 4-H club played an integral part of my childhood, as odd as it is to contemplate such things over the din of traffic outside. And just as my hometown has grown and citified over the years since I ran from it screaming, so has my perception of it. Back in the day, I couldn’t wait to leave. Now that I’m older, I overromanticize the hell out of that place. Show me a dirt road and just watch the sentimentality pour out of me.

Perhaps it’s these feelings that first drew me to the down-home comforts and easygoing twang of local rural Americana raconteurs Or, the Whale. Or perhaps it was their lush, Opry-fied harmonies or the fact that their recent self-released debut, Light Poles and Pines, surges with a sense of camaraderie and community that reminded me of small-town life. Whatever the reason, I was hooked, and soon enough I found myself sharing a picnic table at Zeitgeist with four members of the band, eager to learn more.

Named after the secondary title of Herman Melville’s classic tale of struggle and strife Moby-Dick, Or, the Whale is — sticking with the zoological theme — still a mere calf. Because the bandmates sound like they’ve played together forever, it’s a surprise to learn that the septet formed less than two years ago, partially through Craigslist ads. "Some of us were already friends," singer-percussionist Lindsay Garfield explains, "but a lot of us had never met before that ad. But here we are, like a family. We’re very lucky."

Lucky us, while we’re at it: Light Poles and Pines, recorded one year after those fortuitous e-mails, makes for a mighty impressive introduction. Recorded in two days, mostly using entire takes with few overdubs, the disc feels like an informal front-porch session between seasoned musicians who have shared endless miles on the road. How else to explain the confident looseness of stomping barn burner "Bound to Go Home," the hoedown ebullience of "Threads," the intuitive heartstring-tugging musicianship of "Rope Don’t Break"?

Add to this the fact that the group has four lead vocalists — and the remaining members all sing backup — and it isn’t much of a leap to imagine Or, the Whale as a modern-day incarnation of another gang of rural mythmakers, the Band. Before I can indulge in Robbie Robertson–<\d>Levon Helm comparisons, though, Garfield chuckles and sets me straight: "We’re nowhere close to that yet! And we’re definitely not session musicians." She adds, "We’re certainly huge fans of the Band, though," as bassist-vocalist Justin Fantl jumps in: "We’ll gladly take the suggestion, thanks."

No problem, and I’ll stick by it. Here’s why: over the course of 13 songs, Light Poles and Pines swings effortlessly between knee-clapping bluegrass, campfire country-gospel sing-alongs, straight-up classic Nashville tearjerkers, and probably a few other forms I’m forgetting. Yet taken together, they are a clear and cohesive expression of the back-to-our-roots ethos at work here, much like that of Robertson et al. Vocalist–<\d>guitarist–<\d>banjo player Alex Robins jokingly describes Or, the Whale’s sound as "a big, delicious stew," and he’s right. Hearty, rustic, nostalgia inducing — sounds like a stew to me.

How did they muster such fine home cooking? "With this album we wanted to create the feel of a live show, happy flubs and all," vocalist-guitarist Matt Sartain suggests. "It’s those little imperfections, which give it a real, honest feel, I think." Robins is quick to agree: "No one had veto power. If everybody else liked that I missed a note in a particular part of the song, it didn’t matter that I wanted to do it over. We’d keep the flub anyway, and eventually I’d see that they were right."

It’s this level of openness and mutual respect that may prove to be Or, the Whale’s greatest asset. By the time this goes to print, the close-knit, fiercely DIY band will be wrapping up a 25-city coast-to-coast tour that it orchestrated itself — proof positive of the commitment the members share with one another and their cause. Garfield, Fantl, Robins, and Sartain — along with fellow members accordionist-organist-vocalist Julie Ann Thomasson and drummer-vocalist Jesse Hunt — will end their journey here in San Francisco, at the Great American Music Hall, deserving of a hero’s welcome. "This tour — booking everything, promoting it all ourselves — it means everything to us," Garfield explains. "We’re really proud of what we’ve done. This truly shows how much we mean to each other, and it’s just going to bring us even closer together."<\!s>*


With Birds and Batteries and Social Studies

Aug. 25, 9 p.m., $12

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750