The Bears of Blue River, 11/4
Gavin Wilkinson, clad in a trim-fitting, double-breasted jacket in a soft camel color, holds his vintage electric guitar – perhaps an early Gibson or Gretsch – coaxing from it pleasant, inviting tones as a smile gently creases his face, casting a glance towards bandmates Benjamin Janz and Justin Allen Spring, intuiting the signal’s meaning and setting in motion countermelodies that dip and dive, approach and recede. They’re envoys of the magical place from which the Bears of Blue River hail; a place where ambling folk-pop courts jangly country-rock in a playful dance, sweet and demure.
Patrons of the Subterranean that night (last Thursday, November 4th) were treated to a dose of “bop folk,” as the band calls it, dusted with confectioner’s sugar. The Bears of Blue River number six in all – Wilkinson, Janz, Spring, Brian Swoveland, Joseph Patrick-Sholes, and chanteuse Maggie Gard – and have at their disposal a lap steel guitar, a banjo, and a lively, spirited energy that culminate in their tuneful compositions. They began their set wordlessly, lustrous, cavernous “oohs” echoing out into the Subterranean. Maggie Gard’s breathy alto was a perfect complement to Gavin Wilkinson’s gentle tenor, as the two voices traded lilting hooks from song to song, and gorgeous, articulate guitar settled the band’s sound somewhere between the soulful pop-rock of Dr. Dog or Annuals and the alternately fluid and shuffling cadence of 50s country. Piano followed voice, bass drove the rhythm along with ever-present tambourine clicks, and the six-piece frequently utilized their many moving parts to great effect, a band that truly understands polyphony.
Wilkinson settled right in with the crowd, speaking to us like familiar friends as he prefaced one song by explaining that it was about “that time I got beat up…well, I’ve been beat up many times, but this was one time.” Brought in by humor and harmony, it didn’t take long to find comfort in their warm spring reverb and pretty arrangements. Weary from their 150 show tour (including stints at CMJ Music Festival and South by Southwest), they still played with earnest charm. “Tickled Pink” rested on the interplay of shuffled jazz chords and dulcet piano, its message of “doing what you like” not lost on anyone watching the musicians, while “Betty Homemaker,” perhaps the band’s most incessantly catchy tune, played with tempo and shared vocal duty, rising to the song’s climax, a chorus sung with abandon by the whole band. “Crybaby” showed Gard and Wilkinson’s remarkable ability to blend, their voices bound perfectly in unison, with the texture shifting from guitar with a bit more bite than usual to a beautiful banjo breakdown. “Boy Toy” featured lap steel – always an appropriate choice, in my mind – further testimony of the unique voice of the Bears of Blue River. The 40 minute set was sadly their last of the year, but the band has an EP out that you can check out now and is currently writing material for and working on their full-length debut. I can only hope that it contains a fraction of the treasures heard that night. As the band says themselves, “Share the Bear!” It may just be that perfect, exceedingly rare accompaniment for the uncommonly cold days ahead.