Photo by Scott Preston
Band of Heathens
March 28, 2014
Taft Theatre, 317 E 5th St, Cincinnati, OH
8pm doors, 9pm show, $12 adv, $15 dos
In the course of their evolution from loose assemblage to world-class rock ’n’ roll outfit, the Band of Heathens has built a potent body of recorded work that’s won the Austin, Texas ensemble a reputation as one of its hometown’s most vital musical resources. They’ve won a fiercely loyal fan base and a reputation as one of America’s hardest-working touring acts, while revealing a musical and lyrical depth that consistently enriches the band’s infectious songcraft.
Sunday Morning Record, the Band of Heathens’ fourth studio album (and seventh overall), marks a milestone in the resilient outfit’s development, capturing the musicians’ remarkable creative chemistry along with the deepening melodic and emotional resonance in the songwriting of founding singer-guitarists Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist. The 11-song set, produced by Austin studio vets and longtime BoH collaborators George Reiff and Steve Christensen, is the product of an intense period of change within and around the group.
“Sunday Morning Record was born in the midst of change,” agrees Quist. “Life changes, lineup changes, geographic changes. It was a rollercoaster of a year, but that change served the album well and became our muse.”
“We set out to make a record that chronicled the journey of the band through a really difficult and uncertain time,” Jurdi states. “In the midst of all of this, Gordy and I were writing songs, starting families, moving families and trying to find a thread to hold onto with our music.”
The musicians’ journey is documented with insight, humor and empathy on such compelling new tunes as “Shotgun,” “Caroline Williams,” “Miss My Life,” “Girl With Indigo Eyes” and “Records in Bed,” which embody the catchy tunes and punchy performances for which BoH is known, while showcasing the subtlety and introspection that have become increasingly prominent in the band’s work, with an added emphasis on the acoustic textures that have long been present in their arsenal.
“I really think that this is the most personal group of songs we’ve ever released,” asserts Quist. “We had over 30 to choose from, and they were written while we were pondering some major life changes and digging to find the essence of what the band is.”
Sunday Morning Record — released, like all but one of their prior albums, on the band’s own BOH Records label — also benefits from the powerful rapport between founding members Jurdi and Quist, longtime keyboardist Trevor Nealon, and the most recent addition to the band, Richard Millsap on drums.
“We closed the circle smaller around us,” Jurdi notes. “We worked at George Reiff’s house and kept the vibe as relaxed as possible. We worked fast, cutting a song a day. We worked in the moment, creating songs during the session, changing others, and eliminating the ones that didn’t fit.”
The qualities that make Sunday Morning Record so compelling have been built into the Band of Heathens from its origins in 2005. It was then that Jurdi, Quist and Colin Brooks — all of whom had already issued solo albums and were working separately as singer-songwriters around Austin — joined forces after informally sitting in on one another’s sets at the now-defunct West 6th Street club Momo’s. The like-minded tunesmiths soon forged a long-term collaboration, and the aggregation became a full-fledged rock ’n’ roll band.
The Band of Heathens’ imposing reputation as a live act was reflected in their decision to launch their recording career with a pair of live albums, 2006’s Live From Momo’s and 2007’s CD/DVD Live at Antone’s. 2008 saw the release of their eponymous first studio effort, produced by iconic Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard. That album won widespread fan approval and copious critical acclaim, as did 2009’s One Foot in the Ether, which, like its predecessor, reached the #1 slot on the national Americana charts. Also in 2009, the band gained substantial TV exposure, performing live sets on PBS’ Austin City Limits and the legendary German music show Rockpalast, as well as being honored as Best New Band at the Austin Music Awards.
In 2011, the Band of Heathens’ third studio album Top Hat Crown and the Clapmaster’s Son became the group’s most expansive and adventurous statement to date, expanding their sound with a dose of psychedelic sensibility. It was followed by the two-CD/two-DVD set The Double Down: Live in Denver, which once again spotlighted the band’s mastery as a live unit.
Later in 2011, the Band of Heathens experienced its first major personnel shakeup, with Brooks deciding to move on to new projects, founding member and bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman soon exiting as well. Jurdi and Quist reorganized with keyboardist Trevor Nealon, a longtime friend of Gordy’s who had joined in 2009, and new drummer Richard Millsap, who had been recommended by his predecessor Chipman, along with a revolving assortment of bassists. The retooled lineup proved its mettle through some diligent road-testing before getting to work on Sunday Morning Record.
Meanwhile, other changes were afoot, with Gordy and his wife preparing for the birth of their first child, while Ed was in the process of relocating his family to Asheville, N.C. The longtime bandmates both agree that the finished results on Sunday Morning Record justify the extra effort that went into the album’s creation.
“This record’s a bit on the quieter side dynamically, but I feel like it’s sharper around the corners, both lyrically and musically,” adds Jurdi. “I think people see us as a rock ’n’ roll band, which we are. But for us, a lot of the best stuff we’ve done is our quieter stuff, and we did more of that on this record. The further into life you get, the more you realize that life isn’t black and white, and that there are millions of shades of grey in between. And as we become better songwriters and better musicians, I think we’re better able to explore those grey areas a little more.”
Sunday Morning Record’s more intimate focus is also reflected in the album’s title, which was inspired by a line in “Records in Bed” and nods to the value of escaping from the noise of everyday life in order to absorb music, art and life in a more personal and immediate way.
“It seems like it’s gotten harder and harder for people to turn off the constant stream of information and distractions and just lose themselves in art for a little while,” says Quist. “Now we’re connected to everything in the world at all times, and maybe that makes our lives richer in some ways. But I think that there’s also a richness that we miss out on, of just being present in the now and experiencing the world directly. I hope this album moves people to turn off the noise of life for a morning to connect with themselves and with some friends through our music.”
“I’m interested to see how these songs are received when we take them out on the road, because I think that they may make people think differently about the band,” Jurdi concludes. “In all of the chaos surrounding us, music has been a refuge from all of the madness. We chronicled our trip through a strange, weird and intense time. You can hear it all here: the joy, the heartache, the disappointment, the longing and ultimately the resolution that this band has found to continue to make albums and perform shows together.”