So, just who are Two Gallants? Looking at their CD can throw you off. The cover art -- a hawk dead and bleeding on the snowy ground -- suggests maudlin indie rock. Pop the CD in the computer and you see a bunch of seven- and eight-minute song lengths, which would seem to connote a jam band. Read up on them on the Net and you see them described as one of those ubiquitous neo-blues duos, and I guess that's somewhat accurate, but it's only when you press "play" that you hear the difference between them and bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys.
"To be honest, I don't really gravitate towards many of them," says Two Gallants singer-guitarist-harmonica player Adam Stephens. "I've only really heard the Black Keys and the White Stripes. And I don't know -- it's not my favorite kind of music. We get compared a lot to them because we have the old influences, but I can't relate as much to their interpretation, to whatever influence they've taken from older music. I don't know, I think of the Black Keys as being more of a blues/bar rock kind of band, kind of a Chicago blues style that's not at all interesting to me. The White Stripes I can relate to a little more -- they're more wild, they're creating something new; the Black Keys are just more of a throwback band."
The San Francisco Bay Area-bred Stephens and his sole bandmate -- drummer/background singer Tyson Vogel, who, like Stephens, is in his early twenties -- are in their tour van on the bleak stretch of highway between Denver and Omaha, a flat, desolate waste that serves as a good visual idea of some of the music on The Throes, their exceptional debut. And yes, while they are a guitar-drums duo with four feet in the blues, they sound absolutely unlike any of the ones you've heard before.
They're far folkier -- Stephens plays a rack harmonica sparely and hauntingly and writes lyrics that sound like depression-era Library of Congress recordings, both of which have earned him the inevitable comparisons to Bob Dylan. Where bands like the Stripes and the Keys come out all piss-and-vinegar distortion and raw power, Stephens's guitar sound is jangly and intricate, Vogel's drumming an exercise in intelligence and finesse. And while many of the more well-established blues duos base their sounds on Chicago slide-guitar wildmen like Hound Dog Taylor and J.B. Hutto, the Gallants have an obvious love for the more sophisticated stylings and sanctified blues of preacher-sinners like Blind Gary Davis, the Reverend Robert Wilkins, Son House and Skip James.
"Whenever people ask who our influences are, I don't expect them to know a lot of the people I mention," Stephens says. "I usually just give some kinda general genre statement -- 'country blues' or something like that. And then people are like, 'Oh, Robert Johnson,' and I'm like, 'Something like that.' But I don't really mean Robert Johnson at all. I mean, he was amazing, but there's so many people who don't get any recognition today who were just as talented -- if not more -- than he was...He was really breathtaking, but he's not the god of the blues. He didn't sell his soul to the devil or any of that -- he was just another blues musician playing his heart out."
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Stephens knows a thing or two about that. His lyrics are as death-laden and world-weary as anything Townes Van Zandt was writing at his age. "Shut your mouth raise a glass" he snarls on "My Madonna." "But the youth that we drink to is already the past / and the boy on your arm, girl, you know he won't last." And later in the same song: "I wake on the floor with my country at war / and I wish I could care but my liver's too sore / if liquor's a lover then you know I'm a whore." The jangly, jaunty "Nothing to You" finds Stephens "gay as a choir boy" for an unrequited love. Later in the song he sings, "I followed you into the party that no one invited me to / but I got so damn drunk and retarded / I fell down the stairs and right into you."
Stephens is obviously a literate guy -- the band's name comes from a James Joyce short story. I ask him if reading helps his writing. "Yeah, and I also think it can be a handicap," he says. "When you're reading a lot, your mind is processing things that tend to be more creative, but I also believe that the more you read, the harder it is to create something because you have all these ideas that you're trying to escape from in your head. I'll never stop reading -- I read all the time -- but I try to never let it get in the way. I don't like to have too many outside influences. I prefer to have a natural, guttural feel. Something deeper. Some source that can't be fully explained."
And his band's words and music come together best on album closer "The Train That Stole My Man." Stephens breaks out a slide, keens some eerie notes on the guitar, and the song approaches as a slow-moving freight train from the distance and fades out the same way. Stephens sings a female hobo's blues of wind-ripped skin, a lost love, rain-soaked heads and unforgiving skies. It's an achingly beautiful song, as much an exercise in graceful power as a streamlined train running to glory at 90 miles an hour down a straightaway.
Which is just what their van is doing right now. Two Gallants appear Saturday, February 12, at Mary Jane's Fat Cat, 4216 Washington Avenue. Rogue Wave is also on the bill. For more information, call 713-869-5263.