Ben Todd used to make his feet work hard before he doubled his musical soul by meeting Kristian Garrard. Now Kristian‘s rhythms blend with Ben’s rumble-thumped bass lines and tumbling bursts of blues lines – but Ben’s feet still give themselves up to the groove at times. They’ll be curled at rest (but listening) when there’s a sudden sideways shwoop by one work boot; or maybe a passing-gear stomp by the other. It’s the same thing that’s infected the whole room: the woman who probably doesn’t even realize she’s drumming the tabletop with her thumbs; the guy who slaps his knee when Ben comes soaring out of a guitar break and Kristian snaps a roll off on the snare; the hoots that sneak out of people’s throats just as unplanned and automatic as breath and heartbeats. It’s that groove – it’s all about the groove.
Ben Todd, 35, grew up musically as a punk rocker – he and his brother Matt were into the thrash and roar of bands like the Minutemen in their younger years. Sometime in the late ‘90s he acquired a copy of Harry Smith’s The Anthology Of American Folk Music ; that was one of the few things that he took with him when he moved to New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness shortly thereafter. That and his guitar.
“It was a fairly isolated rural situation,” said Todd. “No running water and not a lot of people around. I ended up listening to a lot of that old music – it really opened my eyes. I spent a lot of time playing guitar and figuring out how to play the styles I was hearing.”
Todd landed in Seattle in 2007, fresh from his New Mexico woodshedding experience, a changed man – a solo, mostly acoustic performer who’d devoured the sound of players like Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Willie McCall and absorbed its essence.
Armed with his guitar and an old-fashioned washboard that had been converted to a rhythm stomp box, Ben Todd was ready to play the blues.
Kristian Garrard first saw his musical partner-to-be at Café Racer – a local Seattle club. The now-29-year-old Garrard was a veteran of the jazz and progressive rock scene but always had an interest in the blues. (Café Racer gained national attention recently as the scene of a tragic shooting. Two of the victims were good friends of Todd and Garrard. Café Racer figures prominently in Lonesome Shack’s story; besides being a favorite venue for the band, it was the site of the recording of their upcoming album City Man, set to be released shortly on Knick Knack Records.)
“The first time I heard Ben play at Café Racer, it kind of shocked me,” he said. “I had always thought maybe I should learn some blues but I was always afraid to do it – I didn’t know whether I could pull it off … like maybe I was a fraud or something. Ben had a weekly gig at the club and I started going there to watch him … we became friends after a while.”
Todd nodded. “Yeah, we started hanging out a bit before we ever played together. One day Kristian just offered it: ‘If you ever wanted to, I’d be interested in playing drums with you.’
“I knew he played drums, but hadn’t seen him until I saw (Kristian’s prog rock band) Jewel get together for a rare show. I was pretty impressed and thought, “We should give this a try.”
Watch Kristian: right foot bass drum/left foot high hat/right stick riding the t-shirt muffled snare/left arm hanging loosely by his side – the only sign that it’s even in communication with the rest of his body is the way his fingers ever-so-slightly clench and release the drumstick in time to the song’s pulse. The fact that the stick isn’t playing is almost scary; the rhythm jitterjitters with a greasy tension: right foot/left foot/right hand driving that groove like Neal Cassady with one arm hanging out the driver’s side window of a ’49 Hudson. And it’s magic: when Kristian finally swings that left arm and brings the stick down onto the head of the snare – WHAM – it’s the biggest sound in the world. He knows the beat’s front doorstep; the spot just before it; the back alley. He locks in with Ben’s right hand; he climbs on the backs of syllables; he chases the runs up and the dashes back down the neck with taptaptaps, rolls, stutters, and kicks of the bass drum.
The two meshed well right from the start, with Garrard naturally blending into the rhythms Todd was laying down. In the 3-1/2 years since, the duo’s sound has evolved into a hybrid mix of old-time blues and rhythms that know no boundaries.
“It’s gone from a lot of the shuffle-style blues to more of a groove-oriented thing,” said Garrard. “It’s got more of a … a funk feel at times. The new album really takes it a step further. Our bass player, Luke Bergman, has been my accomplice in three other bands over the years … we work really well together.
“The two of us might hold down one thing through the whole song … Ben will be playing over top of that while we’re accenting what he does. The newer songs might be centered around one groove – but none of it is predictable.”
Ben nodded his head. “We’re definitely moving away from the more traditional style and wanting to explore more.”
Perhaps Lonesome Shack’s philosophy and approach to the future is best summed up by their simple motto/mantra: “Dancing makes it fun.”
Ben never takes a break to retwist the Tiesco to some funky open tuning; not even to crank the bass string one way or the other – the only adjustment is the occasional clamping-on of a capo, which the Tiesco accepts without a complaint. Tin-roofed leads against chug-chugging low-end rhythm – all in standard tuning. There’s a well-worn spot on the back of the Tiesco’s neck that Ben’s thumb knows very, very well.
Before setting up for their set, Kristian takes me out to the Subaru to listen to rough mixes of some of the new songs for City Man.
Oh, man …
The experience is notable for two reasons. First, there’s the music: this is what I imagine it felt like when anyone other than the principals of Cream themselves heard “Sunshine Of Your Love” and its unique blend of Native American rhythms with over-driven British bluesrock for the first time. There are much, much deeper waters here than what I expected. Ben’s vocal on the first tune Kristian plays for me has that devil-in-the-can hollowness of an old Howlin’ Wolf recording, but that groove … This is more than blues; funkier than hell, but something other than funk; simple on the surface, but fathoms of layers of rhythm textures beneath. I’m impressed and honored to hear it.
Along with the music, there’s Kristian’s reaction as it plays through the Subaru’s stereo: his voice is barely audible over the music as he points out some things to me. No matter, though – it’s the million-miles-away look on Kristian’s face; the way he cocks his shoulders (as if he’s about to lay into the snare); the way his knee begins to pump and jiggle in sync with the groove.
The music’s in Kristian Garrard; he’s part of the music. The same goes for Ben Todd and Luke Bergman.
This next chapter of Lonesome Shack is going to be something else.
I’ve heard the proof.