It was eight hours before the gig on a warm Texas afternoon, and the thing Luke Mallett wanted most was a nap.
He and his bandmates had just consumed a heaping pile of barbecue from one of the best barbecue places in Austin. At midnight, they were scheduled to headline at the Continental Club, one of the city’s best places for live music.
It was an important gig in an important town, and Luke needed to be at his best. “I just need to get some rest,” he said. “I feel like I’m about to explode.”
The Mallett Brothers Band has been on the road four weeks, setting out from Portland as far west as Colorado, 21 dates in all since a spirited send-off at Portland’s Big Easy on Oct. 6.
They’ll be home soon, but first the band plays another key gig Tuesday night at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville.
For the Malletts – brothers Luke and Will, and bandmates Nate Soule, Wally Wenzel, Nick Leen and Brian Higgins – it’s another steppingstone in their quest to become a self-sustaining band with a national following. The Portland-based alt-country band has released three CDs to national audiences, played 150 dates a year for the past two years, and logged about 60,000 miles in 18 months on its 15-passenger Ford van.
They’re doing fine, making music and playing for appreciative crowds. But they want more.
The fall road trip, which concludes this week, is the band’s most ambitious tour yet. It was the band’s first trip to Denver, and its second time to Austin. The long trip is part of the band’s strategy to establish an audience in cities outside New England. The only way to do that is to hit the road, play gigs and then go back a few months later. “It’s all about building relationships,” said Soule, one of the band’s guitarists and its de facto manager.
It’s grueling, expensive and tiring.
“That’s always the goal, to get in front of people,” Luke Mallett said. “It seems like we’re always working toward that second trip, the chance to go back. When we finish this tour, we’ll start planning for another. We know we are going to try to do another run sooner than later. The idea is not to take too long, because you don’t want people to forget about you. I think it’s safe to say we’re all in love with Texas, and we definitely want to do Colorado again.”
The late-fall and early-winter calendars are filled with closer-to-home dates, which put gas in the tank and keep the band fed.
In addition to covering a wide geographical swath of the country, the current tour is important because the band booked shows in several rooms regarded as desirable places to play. The Continental Club in Austin and the Bluebird in Nashville are premier music rooms in cities known for their music. The Malletts also played the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., and Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver, both high-profile clubs with reputations for hiring good bands.
“We’ve been hitting it hard for two, two-and-a-half years,” Soule said. “This is the longest tour we’ve done and also the easiest one we’ve booked. I think that’s a good sign.”
Most likely, it means people know who they are and like them enough to book them.
In addition to planning the next outing, the band’s immediate goal is finding a management team that can help take it to the next level, which means more high-profile and better-paying shows across the country. It’s the difference between being a regional band trying to break through and a national band with an established reputation. It’s the difference between taking a gig to pay the bills and being able to choose which gig to play.
It’s the difference between burning out and doing what you love because it’s fun and rewarding.
It’s the difference between juggling jobs between tours and concentrating solely on music.
“When we get back to Portland, we’re going to take a couple-month break from the road. I’m constantly behind the computer screen, pushing to see what’s out there and who will bite. It’s fishing. I think we have pretty good bait, but it’s still fishing,” Soule said. “We’re ready for the next thing.”
NASHVILLE CATS, SORT OF
Tuesday’s gig in Nashville is important for another reason. The band will share the stage with Luke and Will’s dad, the Maine folksinger and songwriter Dave Mallett. For Dave Mallett, the Bluebird show marks the first time he has headlined in Nashville since he uprooted his family in the 1990s and moved back to Maine to raise his kids.
Luke and Will, ages 30 and 28, respectively, were born in Maine and raised in Nashville. Their folks moved to Nashville in 1986 when their father was making his way as a singer and songwriter. The elder Mallett, who lives in Sebec, is best known for the “Garden Song.” His songs have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and John Denver, among others.
The family moved back to Maine in 1996. Luke was 12 and Will was 10 when they returned north.
Their earliest musical memories are in Nashville. They remember hanging out at the house, where their father entertained a range of Nashville musicians and songwriters. Hal Ketchum was over all the time, Bela Fleck lived down the street. All their childhood friends were children of musicians with similar family stories.
“It was a very musical place, and guitars were always being played,” Will recalled. “I got the bug like my dad. If there is one there, I’ve got to play it.”
The boys were aware that music was the prime directive during the Nashville years, Dave Mallett said. “They were aware of all the instruments and me coming and going to shows, and bringing home wads of cash and them counting it on the couch. … Those were very busy times. I had a writing room downstairs, and I had writers over all the time. We would sit and write, and the kids would be there. I think for them, it was an assimilation of the whole process. They always traveled to gigs with me throughout, and learned what it takes to focus in and do a show.”
The idea of playing with his father at the Bluebird is “a little surreal,” Will Mallett said. “There’s a few gigs on this trip that I am especially excited for, and the Bluebird is right at the top of the list. I try not to get too excited about this stuff. A gig is a gig. But the Bluebird is going to be great. It’s one of those venues where my dad would always play when we were growing up. So not only are we going to get to play there, but we’re playing with our dad.”
The Bluebird is not a big place. It seats about 90 people but is known as one of the best music clubs in America where songwriters can get exposure for their music.
Dave Mallett is as eager as his boys.
“I don’t think I’ve played the Bluebird in about 18 years, so, yes, I’m excited,” he said.
He had a hand in getting this gig for the band.
He is Facebook friends with the woman who books the club, and sent her a note suggesting she pay attention to the Mallett Brothers Band. She liked what she heard, and offered a gig – to Dave Mallett. “She wrote me back said, ‘You should play the Bluebird and they should open for you,’” Dave Mallett recalled. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
Luke Mallett said the band will play a quieter set than normal, out of deference to their dad. They don’t want to overwhelm the crowd with volume and force their dad to play loud to compete.
Dave Mallett laughed when he heard that, and noted that one of the things he likes most about the Mallett Brothers Band is its ability to play within a dynamic range from soft to very loud.
The Mallett Brothers Band has released three CDs, including this summer’s “Land.” The band has earned a lot of praise in the music press for its rootsy mix of rock and country. Among the things that make the Mallett Brothers unique is its range of influences, styles and musical attitudes.
“Land” confirms the Malletts’ Southern roots. The recording is spiced with dobros, mandolins and lap steel. It has hints of bluegrass, and the brothers sing with a twang that suggests they are from anywhere but Maine.
On the other hand, they’re also endowed with a rock ’n’ roll spirit. Soule and Wenzel both play ripping electric guitars; Soule plays mostly a Stratocaster and Wenzel prefers a Telecaster.
Much of the band’s music is well-suited for mainstream country radio. This summer, they opened for country star Toby Keith in Bangor, and were perfectly comfortable on a big-stage setting. They’re also comfortable playing an acoustic set in an intimate, sit-down club, which is what they will do in Nashville on Tuesday.
Their current musical orientation seems a logical outcome given the music their father exposed them to and the music they gravitated toward as kids.
“As soon as they got to a certain age, they started leaning toward the pop stuff,” Dave Mallett said. “We had M.C. Hammer records in the house. We had ‘Thriller.’ We had Mr. Big. I was playing my stuff and the country stuff that I was trying to emulate. But they were very independent. Will fell into punk when he got into high school, and that’s all he listened to. He had headphones on all the time. Luke learned to hip-hop and rap. They were aware of the other stuff, but the other wasn’t their first choice.”
It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-2000s when Luke came home to Sebec one weekend and dug up an old PBS tape of his dad playing live that he displayed an inclination for the kind of music the band plays today. Will was away at Middlebury College in Vermont at the time, and coincidentally had been turned on by the acoustic renaissance.
At some point along the way, the brothers realized their musical tastes had merged. The band formed in 2010, and has been based in Portland since.
David Herring, executive director of the Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation, where the Malletts played a benefit concert a few weeks before hitting the road, has been a fan for a few years. He likes what he calls the band’s “natural sound.” He appreciates that they seem to be having a good time on stage, and likes that the band plays music that people can dance to. “They just seem like really good guys who are having a good time,” he said.
The band has four songwriters, and both Will and Luke sing. That means it does not have a distinct sound or an easy-to-peg musical motif.
One of the benefits of this fall’s trip has been a few scheduled off days, which allowed for writing time. The band camped in a state park before arriving in Austin. They did some fishing and cooking, and a lot of writing. They also built studio time into their schedule in Nashville to further develop a few songs.
Generally, the band writes collectively. An individual will bring an idea – a lyric, a chord progression or a simple riff – that gets hashed out. The road encourages jam time, and the band takes full advantage, Will Mallett said.
“We have found that the road is very fruitful for writing songs,” he said. “We have a day off every once in a while, and we try to plan around that. When the guitars come out, we have pretty good luck writing. When we are home, there is stuff to do, interruptions and commitments. But when we are out there and have time without an agenda, it’s a really good time for the creative process.”
The road takes its toll. The Malletts all have lives outside of music. Just before the band left Maine for this tour, Luke Mallett got engaged. He’s eager to get back to his fiancee’s family horse farm in Gorham, where he helps out when he’s not on the road.
Soule marked his anniversary during this tour. Wenzel has a son he can’t wait to get home to see.
It sometimes appears like a glamorous life from the outside looking in, but being a road band requires a lot of work and sacrifice.
That’s something Dave Mallett, 62, learned many years ago. These days, he admits to living vicariously through his sons’ band. He was on the road when he was their age, but times were different. He never figured out how to support a band, which was always a goal. He took his kids with him on a lot of trips, but left them home a lot, too.
“I spent 10 years on the road, with just a bag and guitar. That was interesting, you know? They’ve made this commitment to go out as a six-piece and it’s obviously working,” Dave Mallett said. “They’re young and strong, and they’re doing what I always wanted to do. I’m very proud of them.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: