Ben Plasse has only been a Howlin’ Brother for the past two years, but already he’s played gigs ranging from brunches to weddings to the usual club dates.
Plasse, like his fellow Howlin’ Brothers Jared Green and Ian Craft (none are actually brothers), studied music at Ithaca College — Plasse and Green studied classical guitar and recording, while Craft was in the percussion department. While there, the three performed in everything from jazz ensembles to jam bands, together and separately.
It was here that Craft and Green first formed The Howlin’ Brothers after becoming fascinated with old-time string music and traditional bluegrass. In 2005 the band made the move to Nashville, and Plasse — who likewise caught the traditional music bug — followed shortly thereafter, becoming the band’s roommate and doing sound on tour for musical theater productions such as “Avenue Q” and “Rock of Ages.”
His addition to the group was only natural, and he quickly found that playing in an old-time string band opened up opportunities he hadn’t even thought of before.
The Howlin’ Brothers
Where: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany
When: 8 p.m. Friday
How Much: $10
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Range of gigs
“I was blown away by how many clubs there were and how many gigs there were [in Nashville] — it was amazing to me how much more of a range of gigs you can cover in this style of music,” he said recently while on the way to a promotional stop at Relic Magazine in New Jersey, at the beginning of a three-week Northeast tour that will bring the band to The Linda in Albany on Friday.
“Most bands can’t play a breakfast brunch; we can. That’s a real advantage when you’re trying to make this your only job, and Nashville’s been really good to us. We’ve gotten a lot of good, random stuff.”
With the release of the band’s first widely distributed album, “Howl,” in March on Raconteurs guitarist and vocalist Brendan Benson’s label Readymade Records (Benson also produced the album), the band has been playing decidedly more traditional bars, clubs and coffeehouses now that it’s starting to hit the touring circuit.
Thanks to the work the band has done in Nashville over the years, playing for audiences made up largely of tourists, Plasse and the others have actually found familiar faces at many of these shows on the road.
“Now that we’re starting to tour, we get a lot of people coming to our shows that came to see us when they were on vacation in Nashville,” Plasse said. “They’ll come up to us and be like, ‘I can’t believe you guys are out touring!’ It’s really fun.”
The band first hooked up with Benson through mutual friend Buddy Jackson, who did the artwork for “Howl” and also for the soundtrack to the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” a large influence on The Howlin’ Brothers. Jackson hosts “picking parties” at his home, and the Brothers would often attend.
“Brendan happened to be at a party before he was going into the studio with Cory Chisel, and Brendan asked Buddy, ‘Do you know of any guys who play lots of different instruments, on a budget?’ ” Plasse said.
“And he said, ‘Yeah, get The Howlin’ Brothers; they know what they’re doing and they play a lot of stuff.’ So Ian and Jared actually were hired to do Cory’s record, and they spent about a month in the studio working on that. And the whole time, Brendan kept saying, ‘We gotta make a Howlin’ Brothers record; we gotta make a Howlin’ Brothers record.’ They thought he was kidding.”
Benson wasn’t kidding, and shortly after the Chisel record was completed the trio began demoing songs on equipment Plasse had accumulated over the years. “We all did a lot of random, different stuff in Ithaca, but we all got interested in the same type of music at the same time,” Plasse said. “While I was doing sound for a living, I kept buying recording equipment, and I would then take it out on tour and try to learn it.”
When the band hit the studio with Benson, they had 17 songs, which they blasted through in 10 days. Along the way, the band brought in a horn section, fellow string band Wood and Wire, Nashville group Jypsi and one of Plasse’s heroes going back to his jam band days, Warren Haynes.
“He’s the dude in the jam band scene, so it was amazing,” Plasse said. “Him and Brendan have the same publisher, and they had set up a day to co-write. Brendan says, ‘Oh man, I forgot, I’m in the studio with The Howlin’ Brothers, but you can check it out and see if you want to play on something,’ and he did — he was there all day and he did some vocals and guitar [on opening track ‘Big Time,’ which he also co-wrote].”
Although the band achieves quite a full sound on the album’s 12 songs — with cuts ranging from high-speed swing to Dixie jazz grooves to loping country — live the group is just Plasse on upright bass and banjo, Green on guitar and harmonica and Craft on banjo, mandolin and fiddle (all three join in for the band’s signature harmonies). Occasionally other musicians will sit in with them, such as Wood and Wire.
“Sometimes if the opening band has a drummer and the kit’s set up, we’ll have him set up on a couple of our tunes,” Plasse said. “When we toured opening for Brendan, his drummer would sit in with us a lot on a couple tunes. But we sort of worked up new ways to play our album — ‘Delta Queen’ ends up stripped down and cool. Ian was a percussion major, so he’s got a cool drumming thing on banjo that he does, and he has a kick drum too, so it grooves a little differently.”
John Hartford influence
The band is heavily influenced by John Hartford — by now it’s a tradition that each album the band does has a Hartford tune, and this time out it’s “Julia Belle Swain” (the band has four other CDs that it has released independently, before Plasse came on board). Often, Green will utilize percussive dancing, much in the style of Hartford, which lends a visual element to the shows — and often a sense of danger.
“Sometimes we’ll set up a dance floor in a cool location,” Plasse said. “This one time in Chicago, he was way up on top of a 10-foot subwoofer, but the board ended up slightly tilted. . . . He did a big jump and a kick-step, and he almost fell off the edge because the board was slanted. It was hilarious, but everybody for a second thought Jared was a goner.”
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