The Gateway Clipper is one of Pittsburgh's more serene and pleasant tourist attractions -- and one of the last places you'd expect to land a record deal.
That was the surprising result of Chet Vincent and the Big Bend's Clipper cruise on a rainy June night with a bunch of other local bands. Along for that ride was Jeff Betten of the Youngstown-now-Pittsburgh-based indie label Wild Kindness, which has a roster of bands that includes Host Skull and Andre Costello (Pittsburgh), Holopaw (Florida) and Cock & Swan (Seattle).
"They just had an energy and intensity that made the show the most fun I'd had at a local gig all year," Mr. Betten says. "And seeing Chet play open mics at places like Hambone's with just an acoustic guitar proved that his songwriting was solid underneath all of that panache, as well. If it's not on the page, all the virtuosity in the world won't get it onto the stage -- or onto the record."
Frontman Vincent says that setting up that Clipper show with Round Black Ghosts, Grand Piano and others "was a lot of fun and a ton of work -- and we felt it paid off simply because the event was a success, but we never expected anything like a record deal to spring from it. It's pretty cool how it all worked out, and confirms that you can never really predict the way things in music are gonna shake out."
They opened that show playing the first five songs of what would become "Unconventional Dog," the fourth album from the Big Bend. It will come as a surprise to fans who know them based on previous records, as this time out the Big Bend sets aside its folk-rock/alt-country leanings for a dirtier Southern blues sound with distortion on the guitars and vocals.
"Our last recording, 'For Everyone,' is folk inspired, but the Big Bend always played the songs pretty loud, especially at shows," the singer explains. "We were still struggling to find a style that worked for this group of people. I was kind of caught up trying to do this folk thing and it just wasn't playing to the band's strengths. But once I started a classic country side-project with my girlfriend, Molly Alphabet, that became the vehicle for my country and folk songs. This freed me to start writing in a style that fit better with the personalities of the musicians in the Big Bend."
"I think it's a drastic shift only if you listen to [the last album] 'For Everyone' and 'Unconventional Dog' back-to-back," Mr. Betten says. "Live, they go back and forth with the audience none the wiser, which is a testament to their talent."
The Big Bend sets the tone with "Doubter's Blues," fuzzed-out blues rocker with a persistent Who-like keyboard riff pushing through the heart of the song as Mr. Vincent barks, "I'm gonna get me some religion."
"It was conceived when I was playing guitar for a church band on the North Side," he says. "I played every Sunday; it's good regular paid music work, which is kind of rare these days. Before we had our band practice I would sit and listen to the choir practice their hymns for the day. I've always been into the sound of old church hymns. So I wanted to try to write in that style, but give it a kind of modern twist. 'Doubter's Blues' is the end result of that."
It leads right into "Don't Bring It to My Table," "Limousine" and other songs that explore the Big Bend's more unhinged blues side.
"The guitar riff for 'Limousine' also came from playing at that church," he says. "One day when I was messing around waiting for rehearsal to get started."
Rather than record at church or in a proper studio -- "it's very expensive and hard to feel creative when you know the clock is running," he says -- they found a good cheap place to record.
"We got the opportunity when our drummer Abe Anderson's parents went away on sabbatical to record in their house, which has a big foyer area and a baby grand piano," the singer says. "When [bassist] Madison Stubblefield joined the band, he brought with him tons of home recording experience and gear from his Slow Reel days. So he and our guitar player Daniel Dickison engineered this project -- and we did everything ourselves except mastering. It was a much more satisfying experience, both financially and creatively. I can see how the pressure of a professional studio might work for some bands, but it just doesn't for us."
The Anderson foyer served the band well on "Unconventional Dog," which introduces a heavier sound while holding on to the rootsier past on "Three Hens" and "Heart String Bound," among others.
The singer says the fan reaction to songs like "Doubter's Blues" -- which got a spin on the "World Cafe's" recent Pittsburgh segment -- has been "Very positive. For the first time I feel like people are genuinely excited about the upcoming record and that's pretty cool."