The Azalea Festival caught some shade a few weeks ago after a few local musicians complained about being asked to play for free (or “exposure”) at this year’s downtown festivities. The news has since made its way through the grapevine to folks like Ben Noblit of Celtic-bluegrass-punk mish-mashers Tan and Sober Gentlemen.
“I heard something about the Azalea Festival not paying local acts which kinda aggravated me,” Noblit says. “We have a show that night down east anyway, [so we] figured we could support the alternative and have some fun as well. We shot [Alt-Zalea organizer] Ms. Anna Mann an email, and here we are.”
Putting the “alternative” in Alt-Zalea, The Tan and Sober Gentlemen are going throw every ounce of strings and foot-stomping energy they have at this Saturday’s performance at Brooklyn Cafe, 4 p.m. Their massive sound is made up with a massive collection of players, including Noblit, Alan Best, William Maltbie, Tucker Jackson Galloway, Eli Howells, Jake Waits and Courtney Raynor.
We’ll also see The Tan and Sober Gentlemen at Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in a few weeks, May 2-5, too.
“We’ve played Shakori a couple times before,” Noblit notes, “‘tis always a good time. Rare mix of big stage, outdoor setting and energy in the crowd that normally you’d only find in a club.”
encore asked Noblit to tell us more about their marriage of genres and music we’ll hear this weekend.
encore (e): Tell us about yours and Tan and Sober Gentlemen’s philosophy when it comes to bluegrass, or “punk-grass” as it were?
Ben Noblit (BN) Well, it ain’t too deep of a philosophy for sure. We want to play hillbilly music, explore the Celtic roots of it, and play it fast and fun and rowdy and dirty, the way it used to be before someone decided that folk music is supposed to be art.
e: Are you all from all over North Carolina? What’s your connection to Celtic music and how do you marry it with traditional and non-traditional bluegrass?
BN: [We’re] from the Piedmont in general, spread from Johnston County to Burke County. It’s less a question of marrying the two, more like reintroducing long-lost relatives. It all comes from the same source. Most of American music, not just bluegrass, can be traced to the Carolinas in the 1700s. The Scotch-Irish, who settled greater Appalachia in general and the Carolina backcountry specifically, were Celts, and they brought their music with them. They met and starting playing music with the slaves in the Carolinas, who brought with them a Senegambian instrument we know as the banjo. The marriage of the Celtic fiddle and the African banjo, Celtic melody and structure with African tonality and rhythm, gave birth to what you might call “hillbilly music,” which then spawned country, bluegrass, old-time, blues, rock n’ roll, etc. Anything that came out of the South has Celtic blood in it. We’re all from Scotch-Irish stock, our families play and have played this music forever.
e: What are the natural parallels of Celtic, bluegrass and punk music? Why do these elements make sense together?
BN: I’ll be the first admit I don’t know anything about punk. I reckon genre is a word to describe what you did, not what you’re gonna do. Other folks applied that label to us after we got going. That said, I think the rawness and energy of punk applies to us, and I reckon that like bluegrass and Celtic music, it’s music made by common folks, for common folks. There’s very little pretension or separation between player and listener.
e: Where do they (these genres) clearly part ways for you?
BN: I don’t know that they do, that might be a question for a smarter person than I. We’re just trying to sound like ourselves, and this is what came out. That’s the honest way to do it, near as I can figure.
e: Listening to “Veracity,” it’s non-stop energy it must take to play/sing your music live must be like sprinting back-to-back 10ks. How do you pull it off? What do you feel like at the beginning of a set versus the end?
BN: [Laughs] Adrenaline’s a hell of a drug. This band’s a runaway train. Once you step on stage, you’re running wide open throttle, no choice about it, till we’re done. And when we’re done, we’re DONE. ‘Tis rare we make it to an afterparty.
e: We get a breath for moment in “Body of American” but not for long! Tell me more about the story here about the “free-born lad in the USA”
BN: That one is actually a cover. It’s a Pogues tune, written by the great Shane MacGowan. It’s got it’s own story, but it’s significance to us is that it’s become a song traditionally played at a police officer’s wake.
e: Who writes most of the songs, or is it a pretty evenly shared endeavor?
BN: Most of our songs old tunes from the tradition, from here or Ireland or Scotland. The second to last tune on the record is almost 500 years old. A bunch of them are sped up, maybe changed a bit, if they’re fiddle tunes with no words we might write some. Of the songs we did write ourselves, it’s a pretty collaborative effort. Someone sketches out words and a melody and brings it to the band, and we just pick and try things till it sounds like us.
e: Are you already working on the next project? If so, will we hear any at Alt-Zalea or Shakori?
BN: We’re always adding new (or new to us) tunes. We all grew up playing this music, so we’ve got a large library to draw from. We’ve got at least five hours of music worked up with the band, so you’ll definitely hear different things at each show.