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Friday, August 10, 2012

S.F.'s Two Gallants: Back After a Long Break, and Better Than Ever

Posted By on Fri, Aug 10, 2012 at 10:03 AM

Tyson Vogel and Adam Stephens of Two Gallants.
  • Tyson Vogel and Adam Stephens of Two Gallants.

Here's an argument for bands taking their time between releases: For the last four or so years, instead of putting out a new album, Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel of S.F. blues-rock outfit Two Gallants did all kinds of other things. They hung out with their girlfriends. They each made a solo record. They went through what Vogel calls "some pretty heavy shit." (He hesitated to elaborate, but Stephens was in a major bike accident, followed a near-fatal car accident. This band seems to attract trouble -- but more on that later.)

In by far the biggest change, the longtime friends did not play music together.

Prior to their hiatus, Two Gallants had been on an intense and basically nonstop six-year run of recording and touring, followed by more recording and touring. They started out playing ragged sets at 16th and Mission BART -- as many songs as they could blast out before the cops came -- and ended by selling out major shows in Europe and having their albums released by fabled Omaha indie label Saddle Creek.

Around 2008, though, the touring and recording and living on the road all became too much. "The thing that had been driving us for so long, since we were like 21 years old, was beginning to destroy us," Vogel says. "We just became very weak, in the sense of like healthy and mentally."

Their break -- a longer one than expected -- proved to be a brilliant move. Vogel and Stephens have returned with a highly anticipated Outside Lands set (1:50 p.m. Friday on the Lands End stage), and a new album, The Bloom and the Blight, set for release this Sept. 4 on Sony imprint ATO Records. Refreshed by the experience of working with other musicians, and buoyed by an all-around sense of newness, Two Gallants are making the best music of their career.

It's not just that The Bloom and the Blight is heavier than anything Two Gallants have ever made before, although it certainly is. Amid Stephens' storms of distorted guitar, and Vogel's thundering drums, the two have managed to incorporate their love of primitive blues into a sound that finally feels theirs. For all the intensity of older favorites like "Las Cruces Jail" or "Steady Rollin," Two Gallants material sometimes suffered from a sense of trying too hard -- both to evoke the careless grit of the wild west or a hobo bluesman, and to sound primitive.

On The Bloom and The Blight, though, the band's character studies are sung over the top of a richer and more dynamic sound -- one aided by the hands of highly regarded producer John Congleton. Amid the crashing verses and choruses of "Halcyon Days" and "Ride Away" one finds a better-developed sense of tunefulness and pacing. Stephens' voice is still pinched and harsh, like he's breaking down this very moment -- hey, that's Two Gallants -- but its grit is balanced by a newfound sense of grace. The quieter moments, like the gorgeous, acoustic "Broken Eyes" and album closer "Sunday Souvenirs," feel mature and genuine and necessary -- informed, we're guessing, by the more intimate side Stephens showed on his solo album. The few quiet songs make the moments of heavy rocking -- which are many on The Bloom and the Blight -- all the more satisfying.

If it's surprising that a band has reached a new creative level after such a long time away, it shouldn't be. For Two Gallants, the change was by design: "We decided to start playing again, just as long as it was incredibly different," Vogel explains. "It's almost like we're kind of new people." Still, he's adamant that the band's harder new sound just came about naturally, instead of being sought. "We just change with what the melody asks for, and for some reason, all of these kind of came out super heavy," he says.

The next challenge for Two Gallants will be riding the considerable enthusiasm over its return while avoiding personal and physical turbulence -- something this band has had more than its fair share of. It's no coincidence that so many early Two Gallants songs dealt with whiskey-drinkin' and hard-livin': That's pretty much how Vogel and Stephens existed. "Our first tour was just playing anywhere, street corners, and parks, and zoos, and venues, and dirty bars," Vogel remembers. "For a good portion of the two-month tour we were just sleeping in our car, like shitting like next to the Cleveland Zoo, things like that. A handle of whiskey and just a lot of blues music everywhere."

The trouble didn't abate as Two Gallants grew more well-known. While performing at a Houston club in 2007, a cop who came to complain about the noise tackled both members and tasered Vogel onstage, starting a mini-riot. The musicians at first escaped, but were chased by helicopters through the streets of Houston. Vogel ended up spending an 18-hour night in jail. The charges were later dropped, but the bizarre incident became national news. "I don't know what it is, I guess that's maybe just our perspective," he says, about the band's penchant for trouble. "We started playing music on the street, [and at] technically illegal house parties. I think maybe part of what we do, it's a little bit informed by the grittier side of life."

Even now, beginning its second act, the band hasn't shed that aspect. Vogel says the two of them are still most comfortable playing at house parties or on the street -- which is funny, considering they filled Rickshaw Stop to the rafters on Wednesday night, and will likely attract a lot of fans with their main-stage Outside Lands show. In a way, though, it's another argument for intense bands like Two Gallants to determine their own pace of work. After all those years away, some things will never change.

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