Blind Owl Band dedicates new album to old van
Returns to Waterhole tonight for free show
SARANAC LAKE — The sharp, syncopated sounds of bass, banjo, mandolin and guitar kick off a frenzy of high-octane bluegrass on “Rot Gut Mama,” the premier song off the Bind Owl Band’s new album, “Skeezy Patty.”
As Arthur Buezo’s deep, gravely vocals tear through the raucous strings, an energy is established and does not break for the rest of the album.
The band’s third album gets its name from the banged-up 1999 Ford Econoline van they have toured in for five years, lovingly named “Skeezy Patty.” Since blowing her first transmission a couple hours into her maiden voyage, Skeezy Patty has seen the passing of another transmission, as well as a radiator, and now has a floor littered with holes. She is now held together with duct tape and spray foam, mandolinist Eric Munley said in a recent interview.
On tours when they play 20 shows a month, the band often resembled the van they traveled in on, held together by their mutual love of music. This is the type of love to prompt banjoist James Ford and guitarist Arthur Buezo to drop out of college, to convince Munley and bassist Christian Cardiello to stay in Saranac Lake and to keep the whole band sleeping on strangers’ couches night after night.
“We don’t believe in paying for hotels,” Munley said.
After meeting seven years ago at the Backwoods Pondfest in Peru, the four found they had similar musical tastes, skill level and motivation to play their hearts out. According to Munley, they like to tour harder and play harder than anyone else, pushing their unconventional bluegrass mayhem as far as it will go.
Using the reckless energy of punk rock, the instruments and conventions of contemporary bluegrass and the “la pompe” rhythm guitar of Gypsy jazz, the Blind Owl Band is not limited to one genre; rather, they create a collage of their musical influences and personal lives.
Though the grim and thoughtful lyrics are open to interpretation, they have personal meaning to Buezo, the primary writer for this album. Written over the course of five years, the songs are a collection of his and Ford’s thoughts and emotions while they took care of their lives at home, off the road.
“Off-tour time is both the happiest and darkest time of your year,” Munley said. “They’re really introspective times, and I think a lot of truth came out in the writing this time.”
Don’t let the dark tone fool you though; members of the Blind Owl Band do not take themselves too seriously, as exemplified in their comedic album artwork.
After a failed recording attempt earlier in the summer, the band laid down “Skeezy Patty” in three days at Overit Studios in Albany, recording the instruments live and layering in vocals and solos, maintaining the improvisational and collaborative energy of a live show.
“We are a tight musical group,” Munley said. “We’ve all matured playing music together, so a lot of our high points we will only reach personally when we are with each other.”
Though songs are laid out in advance, they seem to rise and fall organically, a product of the band’s refusal to count beats and measures, rather relying on their musical instincts.
“We create a sort of sonic hum,” Munley said. “In order to be heard you have to find the place in the music.”
“Skeezy Patty” is not an album to listen to passively, with its piercing, punctuated string rhythm, roaming solos and songs building to cacophonous climaxes.
Cardiello takes the upright bass, traditionally the glue of a song, into the spotlight, shining though on most songs on “Skeezy Patty” with roaming and inventive solos. According to Munley, Cardiello plays 20 solos a show, pumping through a double stack amp.
The hectic speed of the Blind Owl Band’s music mirrors their touring schedule. Playing 600 shows in the five years since their last album, they have run from state to state at breakneck speed, double-booking shows, sleeping backstage and entering what Munley described as “a state of delirium.”
Despite an exhausting schedule, once the band steps on stage, their blood starts pumping and their hands start strumming, they enter the frenzy once again.
A self-proclaimed “DIY band,” they run everything themselves, avoiding labels or managers taking a cut of the profits from albums and shows. “Skeezy Patty” was 75 percent crowdfunded through GoFundMe, and the band has been upgrading its equipment each year.
The Blind Owl Band has come a long way from being paid $35 the first time they played in Rochester. Their sound, audience and musical skill have advanced since their first two albums, which were recorded a year and a half from each other. Hundreds of shows and thousands of miles later, they are returning to the Waterhole, the Saranac Lake venue that gave them their first audience every Wednesday night when they first got together. Now Munley owns and runs the place.
Before they hit the road to play a 10-show tour from Pennsylvania to Vermont, you can see the Blind Owl Band at their CD release party Thursday evening at the Waterhole for its last Party on the Patio of the season.
Skeezy Patty, the disheveled and often crippled van that drove the band and their “sonic hum” is now retired, spending her last days in Onchiota.
If you go…
What: Blind Owl Band CD release party
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12
Where: Waterhole, 48 Main St., Saranac Lake
How much: Free