by David Zimmerle
Two Gallants crashed into their own louder than hard and unforgiving thunder rolling over a dark clouded sky. I first saw them live in 2002 while still an even younger scruff studying English and not knowing what the fuck I was doing. It seems like a whole lifetime has passed since that virgin night in San Francisco, but five years ago that show called Nerdstock, a first of its kind for many who played there and witnessed it, was truly a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience, as its sounds still echo the rigid quietness of Xavier Hall at the University of San Francisco. It’s also one of the foremost memories of my whole experience at that institution. And since then I’ve been terribly stricken with sheer admiration for Two Gallants as peers and professionals.
What you need to understand, to offer better scope and perspective, is where, when and how this all began. In doing so, it will offer better insight into this present, however bleak and defenseless it may seem. You see, Adam Stephens is not there for the song and dance aspect of performing. And neither is drummer Tyson Vogel for that matter. They don’t get off on the coolness of cutting a new record. They don’t live hard to make the ladies scream. They live and work to reflect the surrounding reality laid bare before them. And the reality of life right now, regardless of where you’re living or what you’re doing in this country or abroad, is that things are fucked beyond comprehension or recognition.
Some can pass this statement off as problems with societies and its people, or government and its snide political appendages, but it’s a truth that has been a long time coming. Looking back on the course that has led us to the baffling circumstance of our present day can only take this writer to a time that seemed to teeter on the apex of less. And, crazy as it may seem, that time doesn’t seem so far off.
SF natives, Stephens and Vogel used to be exactly as their title suggests (and still are, when pressed about how they were going at it pretty hard for awhile throughout 2005 and 2006, Stephens counters with a, “We’re still going hard”), and if you read the story by Joyce you’d understand. And I don’t mean they were con-men looking for a vulnerable woman to scam through the grook and grime of SF, I mean to shed more light on their carefree attitude to their entire career endeavor. Because in 2002 it seemed more of a light-hearted community thing that they were doing. It was only through the progression of these past five years that the landscape has changed entirely.
Stephens, with his close crop and almost skeletal resemblance, has always seemed to hold a real fire, and passion to live, that burns as bright and long as a Roman candle. In the minds of many, he is a quintessential figure for creating some of the best goddamn poetry from any contemporary artist since the beginning of this weird century. I don’t remember anyone, save for an aging Neil Young and his anti-establishment song bent, coming out with more piss and vinegar against the audacity of how our country’s leadership dealt with the machinations behind two massive structures caving in on each other and the death that came from it.
What comes to my mind when I think about Two Gallants and their rise to present is a song called, “Get Proud.” You’d be lucky find it, and probably even luckier to hear it live, but that song is what these two young men laid down in their very early creative stages to prove that the new music being played, good, bad or indifferent, wasn’t all bright packaging and ribbons and bows. It stood for something with sepia qualities, and in this song’s case it reeled against the ridiculousness of grabbing our flag and jumping right into a prejudice mindset after an event where people were forced to choose from one man’s idea of right and wrong. Since then, as Two Gallants have gained more steam and fought the uphill battle of making it, respectively, the life around them has gone downhill, and not in the easy winded leg loping sense.
People that saw these guys play their now coveted shows at the numerous BART stations, or the dive-holes off Valencia Street in the Mission District in SF, can attest to the full gravity, intrigue and complexity those times offered. Oftentimes, it wasn’t a stretch to see them on the same bill as Trainwreck Riders, and the band formerly known as Full Moon Partisans, setting up their equipment and weaving electrical rigging through the grasses of Dolores Park, where forked metal ends met the outlets that helped power the Muni trains. Sure the cops would come and break it up after a while, but not before you saw all walks of the city’s life sitting around chatting, laughing, cooking barbecue and relaxing on some old Sunday.
“Things for us are a little different now,” Stephens said. “The people that approach us wherever we go, are strangers to us. There’s just not as much interaction with the audience.”
After seeing them live in their earlier years, I came to realize that audience interaction and that overall feeling of togetherness makes their performance that much more special. It’s not to say that one can’t find a revved up kind of excitement anymore by seeing Two Gallants live, as that is far from the truth. Just take a look at their discussion board. People all over the world are marking calendars, traversing long miles, and canceling all kinds of events to make sure they can see them live the next time they come to their town, wherever that may be. However, the people that knew them during their earlier years seem to miss the full atmosphere of what used to be. And from this perspective, Two Gallants seem to miss that atmosphere even more.
Both have traveled the world, and at the same time, seen so much that many of us can only dream of seeing should we live into our more dustier and depressive years. Yet with that experience, one should also understand that it has not been all ices and creams for either of the two. What started out as a gig to have some fun and see the splendor of our country soon turned into hard and callous work, to the point that they didn’t know what to make of it until they were in the thick of it, and it was too late to turn a blinds eye on the successes and spoils, and the changes in each of their lives that had arisen from their choices. After a while, America seen once is seen all the same. “The more I search you know the less I’ve found/Me I’m a sucker just a slave to sound…Steady Rollin’ I keep going.”
“Most of the country is pretty repetitive and that can be really sad to see. All of the same kinds of shops and stores seem to just arise out of nowhere. It really just sucks out whatever culture we have left. But I do love going to the cities in our country. Places like New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Portland…there’s a lot of great friends there, and obviously more culture. And Europe has been amazing to see, but it’s not our culture,” Stephens said.
It’s almost to a hazy point of no return, like the polar bears you see floating on ice islands into Arctic nothingness. Oh, the irony of it all. And the kicker is that in order for culture to really come back to this country, there would probably have to be some great spectacle of a natural disaster to wipe out a whole lot of us, and put things back into the right rhythm. Regardless, of who your affinities are aimed at for the new Big Cheese in 2008, the problems will never change.
Which I think is the point of how Two Gallants continue to make their music in spite of this very position. They had to move forward, blasting through the earth like beautiful freight trains cutting through midnight blue. One can see in their minds eye how the problems will never change, so why not crash down the thunder and sing about the desperation and plight of it all.
Their self-titled new album, Two Gallants, picks up from where their last full length, What The Toll Tells, left off, with all of the tenacity they’ve exhibited either on the road or in the studio. It is an album that hollers out to you so many times over of the sad intricacies of love lost, gained, refracted and changed through the many days passed in solemnity. With nine tracks that make up the entire album, no stone is left unturned for new listeners or those that have held them to the heart since the beginning. The songs almost seem to play out as short epics rooted in long line of old time music tradition.
“The Deader” takes it’s listener into a new fashioned pop sound that is far from mediocre. And nothing about its severity is lost in the studio translation of the song. Two Gallants have re-invented their sound with this first track. It’s layered with a real professional quality where every dynamic of its internal changes have been thought over with a sharp mind and an equally sharp ear.
“We had a lot of new songs that we wanted to record for this album,” Stephens said. “The way we made it was a little different than how we’ve done it in the past. One thing new, was that we worked with a producer this time (Alex Newport). Some of these songs are really brand new…songs that we’ve never performed before,” he said.
“Miss Meri” is a great invocation of someone finding whatever it is they’re looking for in wide open spaces or cramped alleyways, with a sound that stings its listener with a great twist on classic call and response song form. “Ribbons Round My Tongue” should be played over and over again at every lonesome honkeytonk in in the U.S. during the late night hours of booze fumed sorrow, while “Despite What You’ve Been Told” has a real quality to it, between the clicking rolling tonal variations of the guitar, along with the heartbeat crash of the drums, that aims at a real hollowness inside begging for some kind of light and attention. “Fly Low Carrion Crow” is a song of recompense that holds a dreamy and surreal sound quality never before exhibited by Two Gallants.
They also opted to put together some of the older favorites many of us have longed to hear in the studio setting for some time now. “The Hand That Held You Down,” “Trembling of the Rose,” “Reflections of the Marionette” and “My Baby’s Gone” are some of the best recordings on their older tunes one could have hoped for. They are precise and well-structured in their timing and overall studio quality, that it offers a new way to fully perceive them. Which is wonderful when it comes to the live show, and the fact that many will have their requests granted, and rightfully so.
Now, with fall looming overhead, ditch those lackadaisical evenings for a night out with good company in cold weather, as somewhere, in some venue in your town, Two Gallants provide that warmth in song and performance you’ve been looking for from a band that lays it all on the line, start to finish. Let their sound take you home.