The four principal members of Okemah have been following each other around their whole lives.
Vocalist and guitarist Damian Ubriaco, guitarist Chris Sullivan, keyboardist Kirk Juhas and his brother, bassist Ken Juhas, now all in their late 30s, have known each other since kindergarten growing up on Long Island. The four ended up in the Capital Region in the ’90s, then relocated to Rochester. During that time, they all played in the jam band they had formed in high school called Free Beer and Chicken, named for a John Lee Hooker album.
After recording an album in Rochester, the band took a hiatus as its members began slowly moving back to the Capital Region. About three years ago, they all found themselves once again living in the same spot, and decided to re-form the band, rechristened Okemah after folk legend Woody Guthrie’s birthplace in Oklahoma.
with Stereo Fidelics
When: 8 tonight
Where: Putnam Den, 63A Putnam St., Saratoga Springs
How Much: Free
More Info: 584-8066, www.putnamden.com
Like a family
“You’ve probably heard this before from bands that are playing together, but it is like a family — four brothers who’ve had our ups and downs over the years at this point, [as] any family does,” Ubriaco said recently from a coffee shop in Schenectady. “But at this point in our lives, we’re all pretty deep with each other, real comfortable with each other; we like each other. We’re just at a really nice place as friends first.”
Back in their Free Beer and Chicken days, Ubriaco and company were a full-time touring band, playing up and down the East Coast. But since forming Okemah, the group, joined by drummer Ted Marotta of Ominous Seapods, has kept to the upstate region, performing on weekends. Their next show is at Putnam Den tonight.
These days, the band’s members are searching for more of a balance between music and everyday life — though they wouldn’t be opposed to touring again.
“I think that when you’re on the road for quite a bit, sometimes you can get out of balance, and I think that can affect the music sometimes in a negative way,” Ubriaco said. “Where now, you’re rested, you feel good, and when you come out there, you’re really anticipating the moment of playing onstage each time, and I guess appreciating each show a little bit more than we did when we were doing a lot of shows.”
Fewer shows doesn’t mean the band is slowing down. Since revamping their sound under the Okemah name, the band has released an album, 2008’s “Johnstown Flyer,” produced by moe. guitarist and longtime friend Al Schneider.
“We know those guys [in moe.] back from playing in Buffalo, when we both were playing a place like Broadway Joe’s,” Ubriaco said. “So we go back with Al probably . . . close to 20 years, I guess. And Kirk plays with, actually, Al’s side projects quite a bit, so it was pretty comfortable.”
The album finds the band melding influences such as Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Hooker and Wilco into an alt-country rock mix, while still maintaining the band’s jam band roots from its Free Beer and Chicken days. Ubriaco and Kirk Juhas split up most of the songwriting in the band these days.
“We had a lot more of a blues base back then,” Ubriaco said. “I think we’re a little bit more towards the song-orientated now, the classics.”
The band is currently recording its sophomore effort at Marotta’s home studio. According to Ubriaco, they’re about 70 percent done after working on the songs for about a year in between shows and other obligations.
“With Al . . . we were in for like three weeks, and then we were out, and we would go back in and fix a couple things here or there,” Ubriaco said. “This has been more of a slow process, where I’d say it’s been a year now, compared to a couple weeks.”
Producing the album themselves has lent the songs a rawer feel, said Ubriaco.
“It’s going to have a little more of a natural sound, and I don’t mean that in a positive or negative way. Compared to the last one, that one was a little bit more produced; it had a little bit more laser beams, as I like to call it, and it sounded great. This is gonna be a little more stripped down.”