Brooklyn Roots: The Third Wheel Band
A Yankees fan pounds his shot of whiskey, bangs the glass down on the bar, and shouts, “Yee-haw!” The pinstripes seem out of place; kids in Brooklyn are dancing to fast-paced acoustic bluegrass by the The Third Wheel Band, who have just released their first album, On Willow Street. With loud Americana not often known to Yanks—songs like “Mama Don’t Allow” and “They’re Red Hot”–the Third Wheel Band presents unquestionable sincerity and meticulous musical ability.
The Third Wheel Band is also proving that up-and-coming young Brooklyn musicians can kick it with the Manhattan traditionalists, performing in a classic style that riles a youthful crowd. While the band plays their acoustic intstruments–a mandolin, guitar, and double bass–in what seems an impossible frenzied speed, the young audience is also frenzied, boot-thumping, whiskey-tossing, arm-flinging, whistling and whooping.
Paul Basile from Bar 4 has booked the Third Wheel Band for another monthly residence. The band has carved out a corner in Bar 4, where they are celebrities within a cramped house full of adoring fans. It’s easier these days to stumble across skilled young musicians in New York rendering oldies, reviving the harmonica and the esoteric string instruments, and it appears to not be just another dive bar novelty hook. Nor are the musicians just some 25-year-old kids in skinny jeans who hope to make the fabled leap from bar band to big bus tours. Among the fog of electronic distortion and Yeah Yeah Yeahs wannabes and the doom of the digital age, some of these Brooklyn kids are creating something unheard of—sophisticated music.
Humbly, Ryan Langlois, on vocals, mandolin and harmonica, shakes off the accusation of being a sophisticated musician. “We have fun. We make a mistake, we don’t care. I don’t think it matters. It’s energy, and it’s just having a good time. Generally, music these days is polished off, overproduced, and it’s perfect. And people aren’t perfect, so I don’t how they can relate to music like that.”
The American roots, country, bluegrassy throwback music emerging from The Third Wheel Band originates from the three core multi-instrumentalist songwriters in their mid-twenties, who dig Paul Butterfield and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and work timeless American classics into original material that blends into the old-timey covers they adore. The Third Wheel Band is not, however, a cover band. “We play the old stuff because we like it,” says Langlois.
Langlois points out that often, the band goes through hours of practice before deciding on a single song to perform. “We try to pick the best ones. We write maybe 20 songs, and then pick one to play. If one doesn’t work, you can always write another one. You know, people are lazy now, songwriters are lazy. You’re a song writer, write another fucking song, if it’s not good enough, write another one.”
The four-piece has postured fittingly into the little comfortable hole-in-the-wall venues frequented by other musicians who know talent. Niall Connolly, iconic Brooklyn musician and developer of the Big City Folk song club at Ceol on Bergen Street, was instrumental in the development of the Third Wheel Band.
“We all met at Ceol as singer-songwriters,” Allen explains. “Niall also used to perform at a bar called Jock Tamsons, and asked Ryan to fill in for him one night. Ryan invited me to share the set with him. After I played my solo set, they changed their minds about the route they were taking and invited me to play with them. So we never would have gotten together if it hadn’t been for Ceol and Niall.”
Steph Allen, a new sort of Brooklyn slum goddess, with a heartbreaking voice and startling agility on the upright acoustic bass, is a rare talent and fascinating vocal contribution to a band that claims to “circle around” bluegrass. During certain songs, the band circles around Allen.
“That’s why we put her in the middle,” Langlois says. “We recognize that Steph is the most attractive member of the band.”
Allen is unwilling to join the mob and savagely criticize the Brooklyn music scene. “I’m really supportive of the bands I go to see, especially here in Brooklyn,” Allen says. “Sometimes I think, musicians say, let’s get gigs, let’s get gigs, but then they never play outside of that, they never practice. That is one thing that bothers me a little bit, people just getting up on stage and throwing shit together.”
Allen moved from Pennsylvania to Brooklyn on a whim in 2009, and played her guitar and sang in music clubs and bars catering to folk and blues indie artists. She brought with her a paralyzing, huge voice on a level with the most famous country singers–her version of “Jolene” could fill a bar with tears.
“I came up with the idea to add Steph because she was a powerhouse singer,” says Langlois. “She shut a whole bar up. A whole New York bar that was loud and obnoxious, and then everyone just shut up and listened to her. That’s who you want to start a band with. I think the three of us created much better music than we can individually. And we’ve proven that to ourselves.”
Steph Allen explains that she wasn’t thinking about what impact the bluegrass genre would have on young Brooklyn audiences. “I can play other stuff, but this is all I really want to play, and I just happen to be here. And we were kind of surprised that the crowds here like it. People had the reaction of, ‘Wow, I think I like you guys.’”
Greg Baresi, fast-picking guitarist, humorously snaps at Allen that “Wow, I think I like you guys,” is not exactly the best descriptor for the intensity of the audience’s much more overwhelming reaction to their music. The two bicker like good friends.
“At the same time, I think there’s quite a bit of this return to roots starting to happen, certainly in Brooklyn,” says Baresi. “So many people doing a bluegrass kind of thing, a country kind of thing, I really think there is a scene beginning to form.”
Ryan Langlois laughs. “Whether or not it’s a genuine love for the genre, or whether it’s sort of a nod to irony, we don’t know just yet, but it remains to be seen . . . We don’t really consider what we’re doing to be straight bluegrass, we’re not trying to fool anybody.”
During the recording of their debut album, On Willow Street, the group attempted to capture the live barroom music experience without technical interference. The band recorded fourteen songs in only fifty takes on 66 Willow Street in Hoboken, New Jersey.
The band recorded in the same room, because the glass between them in the studio made Allen feel disconnected.
Langlois remarks on the concept of raw recording. “We did this album in a really different way . . . There’s no overdubs, there’s no auto-tune, none of that. We thought, well, we could fix this, maybe that doesn’t sound so good . . . and it was Greg who confronted that. Greg said, ‘This is how we sound. That’s it.’ People didn’t used to do these things, you know? And that’s what you’ve got. And yeah, there are some people singing out of tune.” (Allen shoots Langlois a death stare at this point). “And strings break. And people fart and break beer glasses, and who gives a shit? It doesn’t matter, because it’s all things people can relate to. Especially the farting. And I don’t know why I’m talking like this, please don’t print that . . . but you can, because I said it, you know?”
The Third Wheel Band remains a singular Brooklyn attraction of little mainstream coverage and lots of local appreciation with a firm underground following. For the future, they hope to play more shows out of town, upstate festivals, and perhaps more often in Manhattan.
“It’s not that we don’t love the Brooklyn scene,” said Allen. “I really care about it, and we have great friends here. It’s more that we’d like to add to that. One day I realized, we’ve been playing every single week, but we weren’t really playing in Manhattan.”
Allen’s upright acoustic bass remains a problem to travel with, though she has mastered pushing it through snowy New York City sidewalks on the bass buggy. Langlois suggested they borrow drummer Dan Sieber’s car and strap the bass to the top and cart it up the Thruway, but Allen firmly said no to that idea.
On Willow Street is now available on ITunes, CD Baby, and Amazon. Below is a preview of the original song “Benny” from the album.