Brown Bird, for all its solitary implication, is a rich hodgepodge of old-timey sounds collected in a new generation’s voice. David Lamb is the kind-hearted circus conductor, writing songs that blend dobro, slide guitar and ukelele into a timeless swing. He never overlooks lyrical syntax, and the results are verses and choruses that sound plucked out of the ether. The band brings its merry jangle to an all-ages show at Space Gallery in Portland at 8 p.m. Friday, along with Sam James and Joe Fletcher.
Lamb recently spoke to GO. Check out the band’s show dates and songs at www.myspace.com/brownbird.
What is Brown Bird? How did it start?
Brown Bird is currently a three-piece band that resides in Rhode Island. The members are myself (vocals, guitar, banjo, percussion), MorganEve Swain (vocals, fiddle, cello, ukulele, guitar and soon to be upright bass) and Mike Samos (dobro, lap steel and soon to be bottleneck slide guitar).
I started Brown Bird as a solo project while I was living in Seattle over the winter of 2002-03. My old friends, Jeremy and Jerusha Robinson (of the band South China) started playing with me when I moved back to Portland. We played together as a trio until the spring of 2008, when I went on a solo tour after releasing “The Bottom of the Sea.” At the end of the tour I met MorganEve and Mike, who were playing with the Providence (R.I.)-based Barn Burning at the time. Shortly after that, MorganEve and I started dating and I decided to settle in Rhode Island and invited both of them to join Brown Bird. Jeremy and Jerusha joined up with Brown Bird again to record “The Devil Dancing,” and played several shows with us around the time of its release.
What was it like creating (the CD) “The Devil Dancing?”
We recorded “The Devil Dancing” in (essentially) two different groups of weekend sessions that were about three months apart. The first sessions were at Hogfarm Studios in Biddeford, and the second were at Ron Harrity’s (of Peapod Recordings) studio in South Portland. The songs from the first session were songs I’d written a while ago; the songs from the second session were newer ones that I wrote after the first session was finished.
A lot of the older songs had been originally arranged by myself and Jeremy and Jerusha, and were reworked to include Mike and MorganEve, while the newer ones were arranged by myself and Mike and MorganEve and were reworked to include Jeremy and Jerusha. Having members of the band in two different states was a little difficult, but it was great fun to get together with these particular musicians and hear things come together.
There’s a lot of elements to the band. How do you guard against the sound becoming busy?
There’s a lot of open discussion about each song, but each individual musician has a good ear for hearing where their instrument fits among the others without it getting in the way.
What did you learn at each stop along the way (Seattle, Portland and Providence)?
Seattle was a great place to get a lot of writing done. It was the first time I’d done any writing as a solo artist, so a lot more focus went into lyrics and song structures. Coming together with Jeremy and Jerusha in Portland opened up the possibility of different arrangements and experimenting with new instrumentation. When I got to Providence, I started being able to let go a little more and put more of myself into the performance aspect. Playing with MorganEve and Mike also challenged me to write songs that utilized their instruments and talents, and encouraged me to get better at my own instruments too.
When you’re using old-fashioned instruments and styles, is there a tension between developing your own sound and perfecting an older one?
I don’t think there’s any tension. Our sound comes from a lot of different influences, a lot of which happen to be older styles, but we’re not attempting to carry on the traditions of those styles. What we write ends up combining all those influences, old and new, instead of trying to preserve any particular one.
What are the tours like? Is the band talkative, jokey, tired or tense?
Before we got our van, we used to tour in MorganEve’s PT Cruiser. That was tense. Tours can be all of those things at different times, but overall, we share a similar attitude about things, as well as living habits. We all need the same amount of food, beer and sleep, so it seems to work out OK.
Who would you love to see someday sharing the stage with Brown Bird?
We recently opened for the Devil Makes Three in Boston, who are a band we really love. It’d be great to keep opening for bands that we’re all into: the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the Black Keys, Tom Waits, Them Crooked Vultures know how to make any of those happen?
Mike Olcott is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.