Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blackberry Wood: Big Top Tents and the Dance Steps from God

What made modest, undiscovered Vancouver band Blackberry Wood land regular gigs in London, England and score an invitation to the biggest music festival in the United Kingdom was not their extraordinary talent or the fact that they were creating unparalleled sound as big name musical geniuses. What made people pay attention was their inimitable wacky energy and an infectious vibe of straight-up, unpretentious fun.

They’ve driven through “pea soup fog” to play at the Antic Banquet in a cow field-turned-circus tent and bedded down in a yurt and a tranny trash trailer. They’ve performed a show for a daycare audience. They’ve careened through the streets of London, the cabbie blasting their CD while they attempted to fix a nearly broken bridge with a frantic promoter fearful they wouldn’t make the show that would secure their careers: landing them a spot at the 177,000-person Glastonbury Festival.

This laidback band is a trick to pin a genre on. Their sound slips from gypsy folk to ragtime to country and slides in a bit of hiphop and world beats. They are a carnival band with a Kerouacian air of rolling in from an extended backwoods road trip. Fit to compete with the cast of Moulin Rouge, they seem ready to strike up a take-no-prisoners burlesque hoedown just about anywhere you put them.

To learn what sets these wild characters apart from other bands competing for CBC Radio 3 airtime, I was escorted to the rehearsal by drummer Amrit ‘Basmati’ who is an Indian version of Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. We walked from the SkyTrain through the well-manicured back alleys of Yaletown, feeling the faux Chinook air streams from condo vents blowing in our faces mix with the damp chill coming in off False Creek.

We were met by the band’s ringmaster Kris Mitch, who forewent a handshake for a hug on introduction. He looked like a master craftsman of some antiquated profession – cobbler, milliner or typesetter which stood out in stark contrast to the brightly lit storefront displays that flanked the nondescript door. Heading down the industrial rabbit hole past a maze of crudely numbered wooden storage lockers, Kris led us to a colourfully decorated converted live/work space. As well as being Blackberry Wood’s front man, Mitch scored the space by standing in as the building’s alarm setter.

Delving into how the band came to be, Kris put on a once-upon-a-time voice of how four years ago on New Years, he and Corinne, his partner and saxophone player were invited by a friend in Uclulet who owns a campground to play a set at the lodge. They packed up their two-person electronic surfer country band and played to a patchwork audience of loggers, international surfers and First Nations. It was such a hit that they were asked back the next year for their second gig. Four years later they are a six-to-nine person outfit that gigs every weekend in B.C. and journeys to London, England every other month to do lineup of as many as 20 shows.

Trumpet player Jack ‘Mandu’ yowled from the sidewalk to be let in and Corinne doggie-bagged the building keys, chucking them out the window with, “I hope it doesn’t sail away like a parachute, Woo-hoo!!” A few minutes later he materialized, fresh-faced and soft-spoken in an Amish looking hat and a lightly stained, threadbare pink plaid collared shirt, rolled up to the elbows.

Chomping at the bit to start the jam, Amrit occasionally punctuated Kris’ story with his drumsticks, keeping everyone on their toes with his barely contained, explosive energy. Interjecting with his voice like a drumbeat itself: powerful, unapologetic.

Kris launched into the fantastical tale of how he met Stranger Than Paradise producer Amanda Rogers on MySpace. The story goes that Rogers, having never met Kris save for the internet, left the keys to her London flat to a friend to give to him so he could stay. “She walked in the door two days later sometime, totally covered in mud wearing pantaloons and Wellingtons returning home from the Glastonbury Festival,” Kris said. He asked Rogers to get him a gig and ended up staying a few days, opening for Victoria-based Immaculate Machine at the Brixton Windmill. “And that’s how we met London,” he said.

The secret of his success lies in his history of hustling skills, picked up when he founded and booked as many as 250 bands for Music Waste, his antidote to New Music West.

“After doing that a few years you know how to put things together so that they grow so now I do it for the band instead of a whole bunch of other people,” he said. Still travelling on a shoestring budget while on tour, they are mastering the finer details of what gives a band chops: how to enjoy sleeping in close quarters “like sardines” (Corinne), “like caterpillars when they come out of the cocoon” (Kris) “like Boy Scouts,” and managing the ebb and flow of ever-changing band members.

Where change and crazy new ideas are concerned, they roll with it like a pirate ship on the waves of a gale….

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