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Until recently they called themselves the Water Tower Bucket Boys. “But it sounded too much like we kicked the bucket, and that was a hokey association.” The band now known as Water Tower likes the simpler name, which might be disarmingly simple for this band that always seems to be challenging itself to add something new.
A couple of weeks ago I talked to Kenny Feinstein who was living in an RV in Santa Cruz with the rest of the band while on an extended residency in Northern California. They were busking during the day, and playing shows at night, watching their audience grow from week to week. “Our favorite audience age is four or five, because they always bring their parents.”
Kids are also a lot less concerned about genre labels than some of us grownups. Water Tower has a consistent sound, but it’s hard to put a label on a band that draws from bluegrass, roots rock, jazz, pop, “and anything else that needs to come in” as Feinstein puts it. “Roots music is always in the background,” he adds, “but we’re keeping it fresh and modern.” When I asked what label he put on the music, the answer came without hesitation: “Indie Folk.”
I asked Kenny if he grew up listening to oldtime music. “No, I listened to the Beatles. And punk rock and rap. And Willie Nelson.” He went on to get a degree in music, focusing on jazz guitar. Two other band members have degrees in music (one in jazz trumpet) and the fourth has a degree in sound engineering. Maybe this explains why they draw from so many influences.
They also share their knowledge openly with others. Feinstein does a lot of teaching from his home in Portland. Various band members work with music and art camps and other groups of students. “Sometimes I see myself as the teacher of last resort,” says Feinstein. “I’m the guy they come to when their other teachers have given up. I love working with these students, being part of their growth. I’m part guitar teacher, part therapist.”
The style of music Water Tower focuses on can change, sometimes on a daily basis. “We’ll busk with oldtime songs in the afternoon, and then we’ll play a rockin’ punk show that night. And at both shows we might end with ‘Hound Dog’ because everyone loves a singalong.”
Feinstein said this does make it more difficult when someone wants to book the band for an event like a wedding. “We’ll ask what kind of music they want, and they’ll say ‘The same type of music you were playing when we saw you busking at that one place.’” Which means the band is always paying close attention to the crowd, always trying to reach out and connect with the listeners in the audience at the moment.
Water Tower is looking forward to connecting with the Hermit Music Festival audiences.
Here’s a pair of videos that demonstrate some different aspects of Water Tower: first the more contemporary “Meet Me Where The Crow Don’t Fly” followed by the bluegrass standard “Uncle Pen.”
Learn more at the Water Tower website: http://www.watertowerbucketboys.com/.
“I guess it’s a weird way to play sometimes.” Those are the words of Charlie Parr, reflecting back on how he learned to play guitar, starting when he was 7 or 8 years old. “I was in a tiny little town which was a great little place, but not a lot of people were playing music that I liked.”
So when his dad got him a guitar, he learned to play by listening to records, listening to the songs he wanted to play, and trying to copy the songs he heard. “Weird things come out of that music,” he reminded me.
I spoke with Charlie Parr by telephone on an afternoon in mid-May as he was preparing for a three-week tour in Europe. He was at his home in Duluth on what he called the first nice day in Minnesota this year. “Everybody’s outside wearing shorts and taking down their Christmas decorations.”
Parr started playing a traditional wooden guitar, but eventually found the instrument he is known for today, a National Reso-Phonic guitar. “The National guitar spun my head around,” he said. “It was all I could think about.”
I asked him about his approach to songwriting. “I wanted to write stories,” Parr told me. “I wanted to write like Raymond Carver, stories that were startling and real.” He says most of his songs start with foggy ideas, and over the years he has learned to pay attention to those ideas. “I kinda know when I should pay attention.” Once the idea hits he starts fitting it into song form – verses, choruses, bridges. “But then I think about a song like ‘Pretty Polly’ which has no chorus. Dock Boggs isn’t gonna give anybody a break.”
A lot of people I know listen to music all shuffled up by an iPod or some other means. But artists still tend to put out music in the form of albums. When I asked Parr about this, he said he always thinks in albums. For example, on his most recent record Barnswallow, he found songs he wanted to record but they just didn’t fit. I asked if listeners were missing anything if they didn’t listen to his records from the first track to the last. “I have a foot on both sides of that fence,” he offered. “I’m not writing a rock opera.” After mulling over some of the pros and cons of various listening experiences, he came to this conclusion. “People do what they need to do.”
Many of my favorite tunes Charlie Parr sings are gospel songs. I asked if he learned those from growing up in church. It turns out he learned them from records. “We went to a Methodist church until I was about 5. Then we didn’t go anymore. My dad didn’t like to be inside, and he didn’t like to be preached to. But he did have a beautiful singing voice, a beautiful baritone, and in church I’d just listen to him sing.”
Parr plays quite a number of gospel songs he learned from oldtime mountain music records, particularly those based on styles from before the second world war. He mentioned the Goodbye, Babylon box set and releases from the Tompkins Square label. “I’d buy it all up.” He plays gospel music because he likes it. “And if God likes it too, double bonus!”
Here’s Charlie Parr singing “Badger” from Barnswallow.
Charlie Parr is the Friday night headliner at the Hermit Music Festival. Come hear him at Indian Creek Winery on July 26th.
Learn more at his website: http://www.charlieparr.com/.