©2011 The Noise Music New England
by Samantha Goddess
To vastly oversimplify, there are two distant poles on the spectrum of music in which women are primary cast members. There are the rockers (Suzi Quatro, the Runaways, Joan Jett) at the I-can-rock-as-hard-as-the-boys-can end, and there are the singer-songwriters (Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro) at the song-crafty, folkier end.
The fertile ground in the middle of that wide musical range is less well worn, and has a vastly smaller population. Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders reign as the most potent example of how powerful the synthesis of Stones-y rock and new wave/power pop can be, and it’s rewarding to find that the sweet spot that they carved out is nowadays comfortably occupied by the Bandit Kings.
When one tries to describe the rich mixture of genres that the Pretenders embodied, it’s easy to end up with a too-long list of descriptors for something that sounds and feels very simple: a rootsy rock ’n’ roll feel, catchy pop melodies with a dash of new-wave hip, and a propulsive post-punk undercurrent. Similarly, the Bandit Kings’ founder and lead guitarist, Dan King, ends up with a fairly wordy answer when asked what bands are the most oft-cited influences for the band he put together. Others are quick to name “the obvious female-led groups like the Bangles, Pretenders, Go-Gos, B-52s,” King says, “and I’d have to say, they’re right, but there’s definitely an undercurrent of R.E.M. jangle, AC/DC power, and L.A. punk harmony in the style of X involved as well.”
The two female front women in the Bandit Kings, Renee Dupuis and Ann Marie, are hugely responsible for delivering on that imposing mission statement. The two share lead vocal duties up front (with Dupuis often on her Nord keyboard) and together become greater than the sum of their parts: a gravelly, growling alto, and a clear-as-a-bell soprano harmonizing together in ways that make the question of “who’s singing lead” feel both irrelevant and hard to discern.
With all five members contributing their own tunes or contributing co-writes, there’s a diversity of styles on the Bandit Kings’ first full-length studio album (cheekily titled in an are-they-or-aren’t-they-making-a-Rolling-Stones-or-a-Pretenders-or-both? reference) Precious Stones. There’s a country-ish ballad (“Laredo”) that the River (WXRV) has on repeat, a wispy, soaring ballad (“Over”), a throaty, sexy come-on called “Motorcycle,” and a roaring theatrical show-stopper (“The Jerker”). Still, the band’s bread and butter consists of the album’s half dozen tunes that are absolutely poppy, but don’t sound twee in the least. The Bandit Kings don’t forget that they want to make you dance, they don’t skimp on the wily guitar solos that make you sit up straight, and they always build the songs around a roots-rock scaffolding that keeps the songs accessible and singable.
The Bandit Kings’ forthcoming LP, titled Epic Hello, is due to be released on November 5. A CD-release show is scheduled for that same night at the Rhumb Line in Gloucester, where the band is based, and will be followed by a Cambridge CD-release show at the Lizard Lounge on November 15. The Rhumb Line, one of the few seven-nights-a-week-of-music-even-in-the-off-season bars in Gloucester, has played more than a cameo role in the band’s story. King, and fellow Gloucester resident Nelson Bragg (percussionist for the Brian Wilson Band and occasional guest of the Bandit Kings on stage and in the studio) started a weekly Monday night affair at the Rhumb Line called Open Jam that has become a local institution and a wellspring of longstanding musical relationships.Open Jam offers a steady, ready-to-roll house band to serve as the anchor for each evening’s entertainment and, since the beginning, it has been known for its open-to-all-players ethos that encourages both local and far-flung talent to make their way inside.
It was at Open Jam that that King met another local guitar player, Dave Brown (former lead guitarist for Billy Joel). Brown has played on four of King’s last five solo records, and is responsible for introducing King to Dave Mattacks (drummer for Fairport Convention, Paul McCartney, XTC) who, along with Wolf Ginandes on bass, constitute “KBMG.” The foursome have been playing a weekly residency for the past eight years every Tuesday night at Jalapenos (an upscale Mexican spot in Gloucester), and Mattacks signed on early to produce Epic Hello.
It was at Open Jam that King met Russ Lawton, drummer for the Trey Anastasio Band. The two have now been collaborating in the studio for more than 10 years, and Lawton, along with band mate Ray Paczkowski on Hammond/Clavinet and King on guitar, came down from Burlington, Vermont to host the 16th anniversary of the Open Jam last month.
And it was at Open Jam where King met each member of the Bandit Kings. Since the band’s inception two years ago, the Bandit Kings have hosted Open Jam as the house band every week, and those hundred or so Mondays have made the band a tight and cohesive unit with more gigs behind them after two years than most local bands can put together in five.
There’s unanimity amongst the members about how instrumental the Open Jam has been for the development of the band’s songs, their sound, their chops, and their cohesion. They speak in reverential tones about its utility. Ann Marie calls the weekly residency “a gift… we try out new tunes, new tempos and are able to explore each tune in depth,” while Dupuis simply says, “The Rhumb Line Open Jam is a beautiful thing.”
Drummer Dennis Monagle (Qwill, Groove, Christine Baze’s Yellow Umbrella Tour) has been playing at Open Jam in various bands since its incarnation 16 years ago, so it’s unsurprising that when King “approached me regarding a potential new band… I was very comfortable with the idea,” and he wasn’t blind to the appeal of working with “two super-lovely lead singers.” Dupuis’ husband, Joe Cardoza is on bass, and together the two music school grads (Cardoza from Berklee, Dupuis from the Hartt School) have a charming married-couple-duo act (Joe & Renee) that occasionally perform originals alongside some surprising covers. The five-piece came together so easily that when asked if the band has had any growing pains, Cardoza simply says, “The low point of this band was the day before we started it.”
Monagle, King, and Cardoza ensure that the rhythm section is locked in, and capable of almost anything. They feel loose, but tight, and they can make the room switch tempos without anyone even noticing. King is a melodic but rocking guitarist, and having played alongside Dave Brown for almost a decade, is keenly attuned to when a light touch is needed, when to lay it on thick, and when to just lay out.
From the producer’s chair, Mattacks sees precisely what is valuable about the longstanding musical relationships that King seems to naturally prefer. “No matter the genre, it’s a really positive thing when a group of players/singers work together consistently over a period of time. Everybody gets used to each other’s idiosyncrasies (musical and otherwise!), and there’s a true plus factor which emerges and enhances the music… It’s clearly happening here with the Bandit Kings.”
The plus factor feeling is mutual, says King. “[Mattacks] can really get great results out of the band without hitting you over the head too hard, he’s a song guy, has amazing ears and the amount of experience he brings to the table is overwhelming.” Cardoza lengthily describes the working relationship, and then summarizes: “Short answer: It’s really easy to completely trust Dave Mattacks. “
Epic Hello was mixed at Q Division in Somerville, and was recorded at Bang-A-Song-Studios in Gloucester with Tony Goddess who also has a long history with King. He recorded one of King’s solo records, pieces of KBMG albums, and the entirety of the Bandit Kings’ first LP. Goddess, too, extols the virtues of the band having played together so much and so often. “They gig so much that they are ready to perform the songs [in the studio] without any second guessing or overthinking. They set up, I turn on the mics and they nail the tracks.”
The tracks on Epic Hello feel as varied as ever, but still sonically unified. There’s the pleading ballad title track, a jumpy post-punk number (“Down Cold Razor”), a honky-tonk barnburner (“Blue Sky Sundown”), and a modern sounding new-wave tune called “Black Seal.” “Take Another Look” is a prime example of the Bandit Kings fusing together what they do best, and hitting the sweet spot head-on: straight ahead rock ’n’ roll with a propulsive backbeat and a catchy chorus.
Though the Bandit Kings host Open Jam every week, there are a steady stream of high-wattage drop-bys that make the night feel anything but regular. After 20 years playing music, 16 years running Open Jam, 10 years recording with Goddess, 8 years playing with KMBG, two albums with the Bandit Kings (and Live in Los Angeles, recorded last year), Dan King’s penchant for long-term musical relationships makes it certain that the Bandit Kings have a long musical horizon ahead of them.