John Train – They do know Jack
Jack McDavid is a well-known Philadelphia restaurateur with a reputation for being, well, let’s just say intense. So Jon Houlon wasn’t sure what to expect when a clearly exercised McDavid called him over after John Train finished its first set in the bar of Jack’s Firehouse, McDavid’s signature restaurant.
“I’d heard a lot of things about him,” Houlon said. “I thought, ‘Is he going to kick us out? Is he going to pull a knife on me, or what?'”
McDavid pulled the mild-mannered Houlon close. “Boy,” he drawled, “I like your music.”
As reviews go, it was brief but important. John Train has played in the Firehouse — and the building literally is an old firehouse, with great big doors for the engines to go in and out — every Wednesday night since then. It’s a residency that has everything to do with the rich, organic sound the quintet brings to Houlon’s heart- and head-felt songs.
“You can’t fake playing together for four or five years,” says dobro player, producer and chief arranger Mike Brenner. “There’s just no way to replace that.”
The band was born while Brenner’s first band, the beloved Low Road, was “winding down,” as Houlon gently called it. What really happened was that Brenner and compatriots hit the wall that ends many deserving young bands. They released a couple of records on a good label, Caroline, and just couldn’t make a big enough commercial impact to take it any further.
At that point, Brenner said, he thought his music career was over. “I tried a couple of jobs here and there,” Brenner said. One of the things he tried was the dobro. At about the time he was taking up the instrument, Brenner ran into Houlon, a former housemate who had made his bid for glory in the crowded Austin, Texas, scene of the early 1990s.
“It was very hard to get gigs,” Houlon said. “I had a guitar and a bunch of songs. Looking back, I can see those songs weren’t as good as I thought at the time. You have to write a lot of bad songs before you start writing good ones.”
Houlon kept writing, working his way up to the good ones. He and Brenner started playing together, guitar and dobro, as John Train. They played covers of the music they loved and started bringing Houlon’s songs to life.
As they gigged, they ran into like-minded musicians, veterans of various Philadelphia bands. Bassist Steve Demarest and mandolin player Bill Fergusson were playing in Burn Witch Burn when they saw the duo and volunteered themselves. Former Rolling Hayseed Mark Tucker sat in on lap steel when Brenner was kept away by his duties as a sideman for Marah and as auteur of Slo-Mo, his techno/dobro project (you have to hear it to understand). Tucker fit in so well, he’s now a permanent member even when Brenner is around. “We just try to get some interplay going,” Tucker says. “I try to make myself useful.”
“If you want to see all the steel players in Philadelphia, just come out to Jack’s on Wednesday night,” Houlon cracked.
The magic of those Wednesday nights has been beautifully documented on Looks Like Up, John Train’s second release on local indie label Record Cellar. Houlon’s bittersweet musings about past love and ruminations on the examined life are punctuated by top-notch playing and Brenner’s flourishes. An ethereal trumpet solo from Matt Cappy elevates “500 Miles” to something near perfection, while Nancy Falkow’s backing vocals brighten the brilliant “Did You Come By Your Bitterness Honestly?” Piano accents several other songs. Houlon’s growing confidence as a singer is evident, too.
All of which is a longer way of saying that Jack McDavid isn’t alone.