|More from Brian Smith|
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It’s a Saturday afternoon in Ferndale and the men of Bulldog are sitting around drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and weed, and adding lively commentary to DVD footage of performances culled from the Old Grey Whistle Test. They’re in the living room of the house owned by pedal steel player Pete Ballard. The band — Ballard, drummer Jay Rowe, bassist Ben Force, keyboardist Eddie Harsch and guitarist/singer Kenny Tudrick — sports an unkempt blue-collar-meets-’70s-So-Cal-country-rock thing that clashes with the home’s clean, soft-toned interior.
Incongruities aside, even a casual observer would notice that this band’s dialogue is built upon a camaraderie rooted in music fandom. This afternoon’s conversation — usually led by the 25-year-old Rowe, whose musical knowledge is encyclopedic — rises and falls on the songwriting and presentation nuances of Bill Withers, Captain Beefheart and Roxy Music. When Emmylou Harris appears on the screen doing “Amarillo,” Tudrick chimes in with, “I’d love to have her sing on a Bulldog song. Look at her, man; she’s fucking sexy. I’d have a poster of her above my bed but it’d piss off my girlfriend.”
Bulldog is a new band of Detroit vets whose members are so far getting along swimmingly. And there’s a measurable sense of relief and mutual respect among the spliff-happy group, as if they are grateful and privileged to have found one another.
“It’s weird, the band just kinda fell together,” Ballard says. “How rare is it to find five guys all on the same page musically?”
In approach and definition, Bulldog is antediluvian; moved more by the traditions of musicianship and songwriting than any music-biz goals. This ain’t some nostalgia trip for seasoned players. Bulldog is a great rock ’n’ roll band steeped in the tradition of Neil Young, the Band, Gram Parsons, even the Allman Brothers, creating tiers of melody, groove and harmony informed not by textbook conventions but by feeling.
Bulldog’s sound springs from a well of traditional American influences that run deeper than ’70s rock ’n’ roll records; there’s folk, country, blues and R&B, resources that don’t ever dry out. As Harsch says, “We’ve just begun to scratch the surface.”
What’s more, with Tudrick as a frontman, it’s an entertaining rock ’n’ roll show, replete with occasional Pete Townsend leaps. Live, Tudrick has an allure that makes people want to know more about him. You sense that he was born to do this; that life offers nothing else for him.
What’s bizarre is that Bulldog has done but one show in Detroit and a pair in Manhattan with the full lineup — technically, they’ve been together since November. Yet the group is already enjoying heady, if not inadvertent, word of mouth in Detroit and New York. There is more than cursory interest from major labels.
The band is a fucking dynamic collaboration — a happy Motor City accident, if you will. To see and hear the songs come together live — in terms of performance, arrangements, songwriting and presentation — is to see and hear a band in full grasp of the task. You’d think they’d been playing together for years. Bulldog might be the best rock ’n’ roll band in Detroit.
Adding tension to the mix is Tudrick and Harsch’s long whispered-about proclivity for intoxicants, about which Ballard admits that he’s “a little worried. It could be a lot to deal with.” Ballard, who recently quit the alt-countryish Dead String Brothers — turning down a UK tour — to concentrate on Bulldog, adds, “But I wouldn’t change anything. We’re a rock band, we’re not Boy Scouts. You have to take the bad with the good.”
Tudrick and Harsch are well aware that when you hit the bottle too hard, the bottle will hit back. Tudrick’s songs often brim with pointed, self-destructive sorrow, the template of any great country song. But Tudrick’s not trying to translate somebody else; the lyrics are all his.
Ballard: “When Kenny shows us these songs we just flip out — they’re not really country songs but they’re coming from the truth. Merle Haggard turned 21 in prison, he writes about it and it’s real. Kenny’s songs are real.”
And they should be. Tudrick has lived hard since he was 15 — broken family, kicked out of high school, bounced around Oklahoma and South Dakota as a teen — and he now has songs to show for it. And, he hasn’t lost his looks. He looks like what would result if you combined Gram Parsons with a young Keef — classic tagrag rockstar.
In conversation, Tudrick conveys an unguarded warmth, but has a habit of avoiding direct eye contact. He tells of his parents — Scottish mother, Canadian father — being into bluegrass when he was kid growing up near Mount Clemens.
“At one point I want to bring bluegrass into Bulldog,” he says, picking up a banjo that’s propped against the couch. “Put it somewhere the middle of the set.”
Of contemporary songwriters Tudrick admires Brendan Benson, Jack White, the Waxwings and Jeff Tweedy. “I mostly just listen to old records now, the Louvin Brothers, shit like that,” he says.
Tudrick came up playing in a variety of Detroit near-hits, notably the underrated punk-countryish Big Block, and the more recent power poppy/mod Numbers. He was a guitarist in the Go long enough to record on last year’s The Go. He’s multi-instrumental, too, plays the fiddle, banjo, harmonica, mandolin, drums.
As a drummer, Tudrick is gifted (“I started playing when I was 7.”), and his skills are often sought for sessions. He manned skins in Rocket 455 and he’s also the current Detroit Cobras drummer. He played drums on Electric Six’s Fire.
He’s worked with others, including Kid Rock; Tudrick says he co-wrote the hit “Cowboy,” on Rock’s 1998 Devil Without a Cause for which he wasn’t properly compensated or credited — basically signed away the rights on a napkin in exchange for $600. He addresses the experience in the Bulldog song “Contract.”
“I was so pissed after Big Block broke up and Kid ripping me off,” says Tudrick. “Now, it’s like whatever happens, happens. Before it was like, ‘Let’s put a band a together and take over the world.’ Now it’s, ‘Lets put a band together and play some tunes, drink some beer.’ At this point I gotta stick to my guns.”
Given Tudrick’s history, a few at Bulldog’s sole Detroit show questioned his integrity. One overheard comment: “Look, now Kenny’s wearing a cowboy shirt and has a pedal steel player. I saw him in a mod band.” The insinuation being that with Bulldog, Tudrick is simply jumping trends.
Harsch scoffs at the implication. “If I heard anything suspect in the music, I’d care about the cowboy shirt. No, man. He could wear a bag and I wouldn’t care. It’s all in the songs.”
“As long as I’ve known him he’s been like this,” adds Ballard, who first met Tudrick 12 years ago when the two were playing in different East Side bands. “We’ve always loved the Byrds and Gram Parsons. If anybody accuses him of jumping trends, that’s bullshit. He’s finally figured out a way to be doing what he should be doing.”
A disc of hastily recorded demos (12 songs; two days) done at White Room studios reveals a stunningly beautiful collection of songs.
Ballard’s languorous pedal steel colors songs with a soft tremor, a harmonic melancholy to Tudrick’s introspection. (For Ballard, it was Elvis Costello’s 1981 “country record,” Almost Blue, that kick-started his love of country music — Hank Williams up through Gram Parsons — and onto the pedal steel, which he picked up five years ago).
On “Crash and Burn” Tudrick’s gutter poetics hit home: “We went out for the weekend/Never thought we’d make it back” is a fairly obvious pharmaceutically-ransacked declaration that’s rescued from self-pity by self-awareness: “There’s some things you should be seeking/A couple skills that you lack.”
Over uncomplicated acoustic chords, a dum-dum tap beat, and lazy pedal steel — think Neil Young’s “Out On The Weekend” — the song encapsulates the author’s confusion. It ends at a peaceful but temporary place; hence the chorus, “Took your turn/Crash and burn/When will you ever learn?”
Others songs — the Velvet Undergroundish “Your Reign,” the Southern-sounding “New York New Girl” and Crazy Horse-ish “South Dakota Sad Eye” — see Tudrick in the recurring role of the perpetual outsider: sensitive and vulnerable, armed with romantic longings for better days and an innate desire to connect. As a singer, his sandpaper tenor shifts with ease from plaintive croon to cracked trill. As a songwriter, Tudrick’s closest contemporary might be Ryan Adams, but the comparison is odious; Tudrick is, so far, more believable, and Adams is famous.
His guitar playing is slightly behind the beat, which imparts a warm country feel and tension, reinforced by Force’s melodic bass runs and backing vocals. Harsch’s walking piano lines and B-3 organ swells afford aural poignancy, and, as a drummer, Rowe understands swing; he plays for the song, the singer.
At twilight, the band assembles around a pool table in a Hamtramck bar. Tudrick, Rowe and Force display apt billiard skills, fueled by beer and Stones on the juke. Repartee is punctuated by snaps of the cue ball.
Eddie Harsch’s youthfulness belies a ripened exterior; he’s certainly seasoned, having done his share of self-medicating during his stint in the unambiguously pro-drug Black Crowes, a band that never lied about lifestyle. His patented, flowing locks were recently lopped in favor of a short, tucked-behind-the-ears approach. The unaffected Toronto native towers in blue jeans, dirty Converse, a hilariously horrendous sweater, and a russet jacket that looks straight from Keith Richard’s closet, circa 1969. Harsch is a walking study of perseverance. Today he’s drinking N.A. beer.
With Bulldog, Harsch seems like a kid in his first band, hanging with the boys, shooting pool at a corner shithole. The only difference is when he talks about smoking a joint with Neil Young in a town square in Belgium or Jimmy Page’s drool tendency or the understated élan of Charlie Watts, it’s because he knows them personally. It’s easy to forget that this guy contributed to a few of the brightest rock ’n’ roll moments of the past decade, including the Crowes’ dense and soulful Amorica, Three Snakes and One Charm and 2001’s Lions, or that he’s circled the world innumerable times and done stadium shows with the Stones and Dylan, etc. (Since the Crowes disbanded in early 2002, Harsch co-wrote “Silver Car,” the best song on Chris Robison’s solo debut, New Earth Mud).
Band members accurately describe Harsch as the “life of the party”; his road-educated wisdom and front-porch, story-driven wit draws the listener in.
Harsch and Tudrick met more than a decade ago when the guitarist was in Big Block and the keyboardist had just joined the Crowes. Harsch was a regular fixture at White Room studios then, had moved to Detroit from Chicago, and would often hang out and do sessions. He had a rep after a six-year stint with James Cotton and blues legend Albert Collins. He added keys to a Big Block album that never saw light.
“We didn’t become tight right away,” Harsch remembers, “but we respected each other. Kenny and I started to tighten up and tighten up and started talking about doing something. When Kenny put the Numbers together, I really dug them. I’d get off the road with the Crowes and the last thing I wanted to do was go out and see a rock band. The Numbers were one of the few bands that could pull me out of the house. They were a little derivative, sure, but they put their own spin on it.”
Harsch and Tudrick were in the Detroit Cobras together, Harsch on bass. Harsch had some “personal things” going on, he says, and after almost a year in the band was suddenly given the boot.
“I was playing bass, it wasn’t something that I was taking seriously,” Harsch says. “It didn’t break my heart, but I still hold a grudge. Mary [Maribel Restrepo, Cobras’ guitarist] and I go way back.”
But it was on the road with the Cobras where Tudrick and Harsch hatched the Bulldog idea.
Back home, Tudrick contacted Ballard more than a year ago and began showing him the core of the band’s songs. With Ballard and Harsch in tow, Bulldog debuted as a trio opening for Dave Pirner at the Magic Bag soon after.
“I considered doing this without drums and bass,” laughs Tudrick. “But, ya know, I can’t do that.”
So Tudrick brought in Ben Force, whom he’d met in 2000 when the bassist was in the pop trio Moods For Moderns. The two even had a short-lived band called Steelhead. (The aptly named Force — a Kinko’s employee who once played high school football — is beer-swilling comic relief, the kind of guy who’ll sing along to a Grass Roots song just to rankle those around him.)
To complete the rhythm section, Force suggested ex-Bluesong drummer Jay Rowe, with whom he’d been in a band as a teen.
Tudrick’s casual approach to the band struck Rowe as odd: “I ran into Kenny at the Lager House one night and we just started talking. I didn’t even know he knew me. He asked me to come and play on some stuff. It’s really weird how this band works. I barely knew the songs when we recorded. We’re just now starting to have a regular practice day. It’s totally backwards. But it works.”
Tudrick says that as long as he’s busy he’s okay; it keeps him from going out and getting ripped. He sometimes works a blue-collar day gig involving plaster and paint. “I like to work, it’s good for me,” he says. “That’s why I like playing the drums, doing the Cobras thing.”
Maybe Bulldog is too new to be beset with the usual band resentments and communication breakdowns, but they are keyed-up about the songs and the way things are headed (their New York-based manager is currently shopping the band for a label deal). Even Harsch is amazed at the band’s collection of musicians and songs, and is certain good things will happen.
“I’m bettin’ on it,” Harsch says through an exhale of cigarette smoke. “It’s intuitive when I think something is special. And this is special.”
Harsch has seen unbelievable career highs and lows and has always managed to survive on the music. He has gold and platinum records, sure, but he understands the agony of having to stretch a finster out for days.
“I play music. That’s what I do. I don’t care if I have to eat peanut butter sandwiches for the rest of my life. I ask myself, ‘Can I see myself playing in this band, and am I gonna be happy?’ Yes. … How often can you say that about a band?”
Tudrick wasn’t so sure at first, was riddled with self-doubt about playing these songs in public. He says encouragement from Ballard and Harsch convinced him to do it.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna play these songs. It’s my heart on my sleeve.’”
Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.