By Jay N. Miller
For The Patriot Ledger
Posted Jun. 13, 2014 @ 7:00 am
They call themselves Band of Heathens, but the Austin, Texas, quintet could just as well be called Band of Songwriters, as no less than four of them contribute to the band’s songbook.
Band of Heathens’ fourth studio record – and seventh overall –“Sunday Morning Record” was released last September and they’ve been touring behind it ever since. Next week they kick off their latest national tour with a couple of dates in the Boston area. On Wednesday (June 18) they’ll be headlining the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River ( 8 p.m. show, tickets $20 in advance, $23 at the door), and on Friday June 20 they’re performing at Boston’s Cafe 939 (939 Boylston St., Boston, 8 p.m. show, tickets $15 in advance, $18 day of show.)
Band of Heathens formed in 2005 in Austin, when three musicians who’d been playing as solo singer-songwriters joined forces. Ed Jurdi plays guitar and keyboards, Gordy Quist plays guitar and lap steel, and original member Colin Brooks was also a guitar-playing singer-songwriter. Keyboardist Trevor Nealon joined in 2009, and he began adding to the songwriting mix.
The most recent album came after a period of some upheaval for the group, as Brooks left at the end of 2011, and the rhythm section they’d had departed soon after. Richard Millsap, a friend of their first drummer, slid easily into the drummer’s chair, while the band used several bassists for a while. About a year ago, songsmith Scott Davidson, who’d been playing guitar in Hayes Carll’s band, was recruited into Band of Heathens, where his pals convinced him to play bass.
In the current lineup, Jurdi and Quist are the main songwriters, but Nealon and Davidson also pen plenty of material too. The other side of the group’s topsy-turvy period a couple years back involved Jurdi moving to Asheville, North Carolina. Both he and Quist have young families, and so a lot of the songs on “Sunday Morning Record” involve characters trying to balance that with a musician’s life on the road. It’s a heady mix of roots rock with a twang, but also with some superb rock dynamics, and the advantage of two or three exemplary vocalists, who are also able to harmonize sweetly.
The new songs, and the group started with 30-odd numbers before settling on 11 for the album, were more mature, a little introspective, and most notably, predominantly acoustic-based. That was a big step in a new direction for a group that built its reputation around Austin’s bustling music scene with sizzling concerts, whose first two albums were live performances, and who released a later concert album that included two CDs and two DVDs.
“When we recorded that album we knew we were doing something different, and we wanted a different approach,” said Quist, from his Austin home. “The interesting thing we found was when the record first came out, everybody wanted to talk about how acoustic and mellow it was, how personal the songs were, and what a departure it was from our previous albums. But when we began touring, and people got to hear and see how the new material works into the live show, they could see how it isn’t necessarily mellow or even acoustic in our shows. We’re still primarily a rock band.
“We were definitely going for a certain sound on ‘Sunday Morning Record,” said Quist. “All that is true, and I think we achieved that. But I also think that playing that music live adds another layer to it, and it fits into our previous work very well.”
Songwriting with this group comes in many varied methods, as you might expect
“Ed and I work solo or in collaboration,” said Quist. “Sometimes one of us will come in with a song that came out close to completely finished. At other times, one of the other of us will have just a verse, maybe just a line, and we’ll send it to the other and start working together. Then when we finish, the band guys take their crack at it, and the songs always end up very different from where we started. In fact, I’m usually surprised where some of our songs end up.”
Band of Heathens has the advantage of being able to write new music almost constantly, whether on the road or while taking a break at home. The quintet just returned from a European jaunt, and took a couple weeks off before embarking on the U.S. tour.
“We can write just about anywhere,” said Quist. “We’re all different but basically we’re all reaching into the truth of humanity in our songwriting, trying to find ideas that resonate with all kinds of people. We don’t start with any special notions, or try to write in specific styles. A song could be anything – a rock song with the full band, or a solo acoustic number. As a writer I think that attitude is very freeing, knowing you could go either way, or take something in any direction. We can let a song go wherever it wants to go.”
That open-ended approach also translates to Band of Heathens’ performances, where the quintet follows its instincts to expand and extend the tunes. A Band of Heathens concert is more than likely to include some lengthy jams, where the songs evolve over time and morph into new shapes.
“I think the band, with this lineup, is in a really good place right now,” said Quist. “We’re all healthy, musically it is the best the band has ever sounded, and everybody is having a good time. The new people in the mix allow the music to go in different directions.
“Scott Davidson is the latest member to join, a year ago, and he’s a better guitar player than I am,” Quist pointed out. “Scott can essentially play anything with strings, has really good ears, and is also a good songwriter who gels with all the rest of us. Trevor, who’s been with us five years now, also writes, so we’re compiling a lot of new songs. In the next few months we’ll start going through all the new music and figuring out what we want on the next record.”
Band of Heathens has performed before in the Boston area, “about four or five times,” according to Quist, at various venues, including Great Scott in Allston, and The Sinclair in Cambridge.“We’ve been off the European tour a couple weeks now, and I can’t wait to get back on tour with the guys,” said Quist. “That’s how well things are going – we all love what we’re doing, and enjoy being around the other people in the band, the audiences have been very receptive, and it’s just a good time for everybody.”