The Mulligan Brothers
(Southern Routes Records, 2015)
Good things come from Mobile, Alabama! Not only my two (adopted) sons, but also The Mulligan Brothers. A quartet comprised of veteran musicians Ross Newell (guitar, lead vocals and songwriting), Gram Rea (fiddle, viola, mandolin, harmonica and vocals), Ben Leininger (bass and vocals), Greg DeLuca (drums and vocals). In June 2013 they released their self-titled debut album. After its release, the band quickly gathered a legion of dedicated fans on the local level. But soon their sounds word would spread beyond The Port City and they have recently enjoyed national exposure. In 2014, they played to a very enthusiastic crowd at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where their debut album shot into the 'Top 10 CD sales' at the festival’s merchandise booth, earning them fans from across the country. They have since ventured into a number of states including New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
When The Mulligan Brothers put together their 'second chance' band in early 2013, it was with the mutual understanding that the music came first. All four agreed: "We wanted to play our original music and make a career out of it, without selling our souls.” The band was willing to take a risk by playing their original music and slowly, methodically building a fan base, knowing that money would be tight and fame an unlikely bedfellow. “We’re doing honest music,” says Gram Rea, “These are true and honest stories about real life experiences… honest music from the heart.” The band has tried to stay away from: “Formulas set forth on the radio. We want to play our music even if it doesn’t mean a major deal. We just want a solid career that we can sustain for many, many years and a following that appreciates the music. It’s really about the music at the end of the day.”
More about The Mulligan Brothers:
The band admits that it’s a little scary to release a second album when the first was so well received, but they are very excited! For the creation of 'Via Portland', they chose musician / producer Steve Berlin. After a mutual friend passed on a copy of The Mulligan Brothers debut, Berlin quickly expressed interest in working with the quartet. Berlin’s interest came at a perfect time when the band was making plans for their sophomore effort. The Mulligan Brothers loaded up the tour bus and journeyed to Portland to enter the studio with Berlin in the production chair and Jeff Saltzman manning the console.
For three weeks in September 2014, The Mulligan Brothers parked their white bus in front of Ice Cream Studios in Portland, Oregon to record their new album 'Via Portland'. Each day they walked down the stairs and through heavy swinging doors into the basement studio filled with guitars, drums, instrument cases, and Christmas lights. They took their places behind microphones in the boiler room, between soundproof black quilts, or in the corner of the control room beneath antelope and elk heads hanging on the walls to record their songs of murder, loyalty, heartbreak, and misplaced dreams. Each session began with two hours of testing microphones, and tuning and changing instruments as producer Steve Berlin and engineer Jeff Saltzman prepared for every note.
Steve Berlin is the saxophone player for Los Lobos, but he has also been involved with Grammy-winning projects for Buckwheat Zydeco, Ozomatli, John Lee Hooker and Los Super Seven. He is known for his production work with acts such as Deer Tick, Backyard Tire Fire and Leo Kottke. “A friend gave me the Mulligan Brothers’ first CD and I told them to call me if they wanted my help with the next one,” says Berlin. “It was a slam dunk. The songs are great and the band is great. Ross' voice is a unique, magical instrument that can work for any age and any demographic. They also came in prepared with a firm handle on what they want. That spoiled me because a lot of my time with young bands is working on arranging and orchestration. These guys are amazing people and seem happy to be here and to have this chance. I couldn't have scripted this any better.”
'Via Portland' is the second album for the band from Mobile and Baton Rouge that met playing in bars in Mobile and took a name that means second chances. “The high expectations make this a bit terrifying,” says Newell. “When people say they want it to be as good as the first one, they mean that they want it to be the same as the first one. That is impossible. Those songs have already been sung and those stories have already been told. I have been nervous along each step of this recording process. I don't know when the big relief comes, but right now it is a lot of little reliefs. There seems to be more opportunities with this second album.”
The music is still a blend of alt-country, blues and folk that sounds like the Lumineers with a hot fiddle and the song writing of Townes Van Zandt, but 'Via Portland' is a smoother album with more harmony and background vocals and dynamics in the instrumentation. The lyrics in 'Via Portland' are once again built on Newell’s poetic imagery and storytelling in a warm, sincere voice that is full of feeling whether it is relaxed or strained. But the band is tighter now and more confident in themselves and one another. They play together most nights of the week and the new songs evolved in front of audiences, giving each musician time to develop his parts.
“We now spend most of our time traveling and playing shows and we have so little time to spend making the album, so we had to make the most of this,” Newell says. “The arrangements we played in the studio are the skeletons for everything we play live. We don’t want to create listener fatigue with the same tone for eleven songs, and changing the textures and dynamics for every song keeps us from having to be a show band that plays pop, rock and orchestra.”
'Via Portland' is the first time The Mulligan Brothers recorded at the same time in the studio together. Debut album 'The Mulligan Brothers' was recorded at Dancing Dog Studios in Daphne, Alabama, around work, gigs, and family schedules. Rea, DeLuca, Leininger, and Newell had just begun to play together and there was little time for rehearsal. “When we made 'The Mulligan Brothers', we didn't know we were making an album people would be so passionate about or that we would be so proud of,” DeLuca says. “We just knew it would be good because Ross writes killer songs.”
“The first time we had to record separately and it was passing the baton to the next one in the studio,” Rea says. “This time it was good to get away and completely concentrate on recording. We drove from Mobile to Portland and played gigs along the way and we lived together in a house during recording so there was time to work everything out. We tracked together and that captured more feelings and gave us a different perspective. “
Newell had only a few months to write eleven songs to fill the album, but he carefully wrote the songs that challenge himself and the listener. “I don’t want to write a song that just leads to the next rhyme,” he says. “I sing these songs hundreds of times a year and it is important for me to identify with that song every time. If I have to fake it while I write it, then I am going to have to fake it every night, and that just seems like a miserable existence to me.”
“The members of the band are genuinely good people and that comes out in their music,” says event and meeting planner Jon Kardon, who has booked the band for events across the country. “The Mulligan Brothers resonate with people because of their songwriting, their melodies, and voices that can trade off in the harmonies. They are extraordinary, and I think they are just beginning. I hope they have a national chance to be heard.” The experiences and success of the past two years is a pleasant surprise for The Mulligan Brothers. “None of us are strangers to being in a band, but this has been something else from the very beginning, from the band’s dedication to do whatever it takes to everyone’s willingness to receive it and their eagerness to be a part of it,” says Newell. “Right now there is a nervousness before the album comes out because we care about this music and don’t want to let anyone down, but this album is honest and sincere from the ground up. We stayed true to ourselves.”
When they entered the studio, they envisioned the final product would be a continuation of the sounds and vibes of the first album. However, Berlin and Saltzman had different plans. Whereas the band took more of a co-production role with their debut, The Mulligan Brothers decided to let Berlin take the reins for 'Via Portland'.
According to Greg DeLuca, Berlin was skilled at adding 'the little nuances' that took eleven songs and bonded them together into an album. DeLuca said the band was also impressed with Saltzman’s ability to capture an accurate representation of the band’s instrumental and vocal qualities. The Mulligan Brothers’ time in the studio was educational and evolutionary. Berlin’s guidance allowed the band to add undiscovered depth to their tracks. Even Berlin’s suggestion of a piano in one song will echo throughout future live performances. “None of us play piano really, but we’re going to end up adding it to our live show,” DeLuca said. “It’s just stuff that we would not have done ourselves. We’re happy that it happened the way it happened. He pulled some stuff out of us that we just wouldn’t have done. Not because we don’t want it to happen, we just wouldn’t have done it.” According to DeLuca, the band could not be happier with the final product, and they should be. The sonic depth of 'Via Portland' is truly amazing. The first thing that listeners will note is the overall quality and clarity of the recording. In a time when technology has made do-it-yourself recording popular with many bands, 'Via Portland' is a testament to the benefits of recording with professionals in a professional studio.
With The Mulligan Brothers’ heavy emphasis on acoustic instruments, Berlin and Saltzman were able capture every strum and pluck with crystalline accuracy. In addition, each song exhibits a rich sound that has been honed by skilled ears. Fans can expect 'Via Portland' to contrast their debut in many ways. However, The Mulligan Brothers’ core sound and musical philosophy still remain. Ultimately, 'Via Portland' maintains the down-home sound and heartfelt lyrics that have brought them rapid notoriety, but their time in the studio has definitely had and will have a lasting positive effect in their future work.
About 'Via Portland':
The info sheet says: Ever since The Mulligan Brothers released their debut album to establish them as one of the most talked about bands currently working in the USA, reviewers and radio presenters have debated the style and sound the talented four-piece bring to the roots music scene. Some suggest the combo transport them back to a time when Jackson Browne was riding high in the charts with 'Running On Empty' or bands like The Sutherland Brothers & Quiver were getting all the attention. Others say they stack up squarely alongside present-day acts such as The Lumineers or Frogholler. It's true that Ross Newell's radio-ready vocals recall the gentler side of 70's rock and have been singled out for much praise, while playing companions Gram Rea, Greg DeLuca and Ben Leininger provide a 'just right' level of sensitive support to complete the picture. But that argument still rumbles on and maybe now, with the release of this tremendous follow-up, they will get a chance to flex their muscles more freely and carve out an even stronger position for themselves.
Storytelling takes the stage, while this Gulf Coast Group melts bittersweet lyrics with comforting altcountry and folk melodies. They gently adorn heartfelt tales of love and loss with complex bluegrass flavored arrangements and create a nostalgic feeling throughout, that we all can relate to.
This album rewards two different styles of listening. Under any circumstances, fans can hear more of what made The Mulligan Brothers so appealing in the first place: the easy flow of music that uses traditional textures without falling into a fake rootsiness, balanced against lyrics that are often sharply contemporary. But 'Via Portland' also rewards headphone listening, with subtle ambiance that lends a new depth to the music.
1. "Wait For Me": The album opens with the 'a capella' harmony about a ramblin’ heart and a troubled mind that is not ready to let go of what it had. It is the last song that Ross Newell wrote for the album and the band’s favorite: "Wait for me like the river bed the water / Wait for me with the dishes and the debt / Wait for me I'm trying, I'll try harder / Wait for me don't give up on me yet". Ross sets the stage for this story of longing and heartbreak with his acoustic guitar, before being joined by a wave of instrumentation from his band mates. The song creates a foundation for a sonically dramatic and dynamic album.
2. "City Full of Streets": A beautiful title for a just as gorgeous song, richly adorned by violin. The soulful onset to the choruses belongs among the best I've ever heard. "She said she'd love me / Yeah, she loved me like a dollar bill". The best advice I've heard in ages: "Turn the radio way too loud and move on"!
3. "I Don't Want To Know": A catchy uptempo tune and I start to like that violin more and more. Not only the solos, but also the part of violin and viola in the rich arrangements.
4. "Bad Idea": This track displays The Mulligan Brothers versatile sound, which begins with a fusion of guitar and violin and spontaneously dropping into a classic honky-tonk country ballad.
5. "Calamine": The centerpiece of the album is a haunting tale of violence, sparsely told by Ross Newell and his J-45 guitar while harmonies, cymbals, shakers and a jangled piano -played by Steve Berlin- lurk in the shadows, warning of an unhappy ending: "In hindsight it was pestilence not providence that Calamine was there / When I spotted Hobbs closing the shop and sweeping up the hair beneath his chair / A bell that hung over the door announced our entrance past the closed for business sign / Hobbs was covered up with holes and bleeding out when that bell rang a second time". “When I wrote ‘Calamine’, it was more of a movie script and I had to cut a lot of it,” Ross Newell says. “It is a fictional story, but those characters are real to me and I see them every time I sing the song.”
6. "So Are You": Back to bluegrass basics, with a nice visit of the mandolin. The sad story of Katie: "You've got to make yourself at home and make your home at yourself / Every place you ever dreamed of is full of people who are dreaming of some place else."
7. "Let Them Ring": A country blues tinged drinking song, with yet another starring role for the violin, recalling evenings by the fire of a pub in the Irish countryside.
8. "Road That Leads Me Home": The title suggests a sentimental ballad and that is exactly what we get here. There are even Christmas lights on the old oak tree... I love the line: "When my mind needs somewhere safe to go", that makes such perfect sense!
9. "Run On Ahead": This country ballad is based on Ross Newell’s conversations with his girlfriend Carley. The song is personal to Ross and Steve Berlin used the demo track because the emotion in Newell’s voice could not be recreated in the studio. “It is about unselfishly caring for each other,” Ross Newell says. “I have been in enough relationships to know that it’s not easy to love someone that does the job that I do. When I am gone for long periods of time, she handles it so gracefully and everything is done in a loving nature. “I woke up loving you again I made coffee in your favorite cup / Then I washed all your snap shirts and your jeans / It's funny I can feel your love so strong from out there on the road / And you can feel mine while you’re running down your dreams". The song was written as The Mulligan Brothers began touring farther away from home. The bookings have grown beyond local weekends at The Flora-Bama or the Brickyard into weeks crossing the country for shows in Pittsburgh, New York City, Texas and Oklahoma.
10. "Louise": The voice of Ross definitely has Jackson Browne qualities. This track shows traces of Gulf Coast music all over, that catchy as you-know-what Cajun sound of the fiddle, the percussion imitating a triangle-based rhythm, I just want to dance and sing along! Favorite song, oh yes!
11. "Not Always What It Seems": "My family is estranged / We all share the same name and we sharpen our teeth on each others mistakes / Our hearts pump the same blood / Now we know how it tastes / Happy Christmas and New Year / A shame and a waste." An impressive last song on a just as impressive album!
What's in the planning for 2015? Greg DeLuca explains that the band will definitely be working to join festival lineups wherever they can and to go further than last year. They also plan on getting back to many of the venues they have played in order to introduce old and new friends to the sounds of 'Via Portland'!
Written & compiled by Johanna J. Bodde - January 2nd, 2015 (Quotes from Lagniappe Mobile)