Mad River Union
ARCATA – Who knew that South G Street in Arcata was such an enclave of Southern roots? Two Georgia transplants have their businesses there but, more importantly, have recorded a CD there that transports the listener to an earlier time and another place.
Mike Bynum, an acoustic guitarist, songwriter, and singer from Atlanta, Georgia teamed up with Michael Walker, guitar builder (“The Art of the Guitar,” Mad River Union, March 21, 2018), songwriter, guitarist, and singer, from Tifton, in South Georgia, to form The Handshakers.
The voices of these two artists blend perfectly and the songs each of them wrote for the CD are a harmonious mix of old tradition and new energy. The Handshakers’ new recording is simply Americana at its best. Call it alt country, call it Southern roots, call it the blues, call it what you will, this music gets you deep in that place you'd rather keep secret.
The band has been playing around for the last year, notably with Aleister Paige on steel pedal guitar, Gary Davidson on bass, and Paul DeMark on drums. Their outdoor gigs at Wrangletown Cider were the essence of summer music and they recently played at the benefit for the Bayside Community Hall. Look for them around town.
Listening to the new CD, titled simply, The Handshakers, is to go back in time. Marc Jeffares produced it in the recording style of the 1940s and ’50s and that decision was a wise one. The entire studio (Michael Walker’s guitar workshop) took a day to set up with microphones in the balcony, on stands high in the air, and all over the room for an old time feel. No one wore headphones; no one sang their vocals later. Each song required no more than three takes. The songs were done in one go: something for musicians akin to that feeling of holding your nose and jumping off a cliff into the cold water of a river far below. It took trust and it took skill and it works.
What’s even more amazing is that the rhythm section of bassist Davidson and drummer DeMark had never performed with the band when they went into the recording session for two days in January 2018. Davidson had “some notes I'd taken” and the two had the advantage of having played together for years in other bands. But to go in cold and come out with such hot excellence was a triumph.
It's also a tribute to the inspired production by Jeffares and the post production mastering by Ryan Roberts.
“It's a unique way of recording that’s been largely abandoned in modern times,” Jeffares said. “We put all the musicians in one room. There's no wrong way to do this,” he explained. “but when you have a group of musicians that play well together, there’s a magic.”
From there it was making choices about placement –placement of the musicians, the instruments, the mikes.
All the members of the band had nothing but praise for the process although there were some rueful chuckles when asked if they had thought it would work when first proposed.
“I thought we’d get four songs in three days,” DeMark said. “We got them all the first day and it was too complicated to do the set up again so we finished on the second day.”
Songs like Gravity (Michael Walker) and Ring On (Mark Rylie and Mike Bynum) carry the listener back. When I was a kid, my mom had every album ever produced by Sun Records and I used to beg to be taken with the grownups to the Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix to hear such greats as Faron Young, Kitty Wells and Slim Whitman. The aching in the voices, the rich symphony of guitar and pedal steel, the broken romance in the lyrics were intoxicating and probably far beyond my understanding. But I recognize that emotion and that intensity in this CD. The writing is authentic and that comes through full bore. All 10 of the original songs are winners.
For instance, the lyrics in Ring On are totally a bummer: “I’ll bring you down to the cold lonely truth, girl, You a’int the one with a ring on, You a’nt the one who says, ‘Honey, I’m home,’ It’s a weekend thing.” But the music is so catchy that you won't be able to keep from two-stepping around the room while you listen.
“I think this CD reflects Michael Walker's and Mike Bynum's Southern roots and upbringing,” DeMark said.
Jeffares, who, when he is not producing, plays with The Trouble and The Detours, lived in Tennessee for four years. “I loved it out there and miss it,” he said. “That's what attracted me to The Handshakers' music.”
Jeffares gets guest musician credits on some of the cuts as does Georgia Ruth who did harmony vocals on seven songs.
The CD is on sale at People's Records in Arcata, from band members, at The Logger on March 2 or at bandcamp.com.
Bandcamp.com is a great site from a musician's point of view. Visitors to the site can listen to all ten tracks, download single tracks, or purchase the entire CD with all the money going to the band. Other sites take up to 40 per cent so Bandcamp is beloved. Buyers can even pay more for the CD if they wish. "I've paid $100 for someone's CD, just to support the band," Bynum said.
It's also available on the usual sites of amazon, iTunes, and apple music.
Members of The Handshakers bring so much experience to the band. DeMark is a veteran of the now ended (sigh) Delta Nationals, and currently plays in The Gila Monsters and his new jazz trio, PD3, with Fred Neighbor and Bruce Junior Johnson. He has toured with such blues legends as Sunnyland Slim and played with Mike Bloomfield and Albert Collins. Davidson, who recently retired after 30 years of work as an environmental engineer, plays with Home Cookin', Rosewater, Old Dog, Tuna Melt, and, on March 1, with The Thad Beckman Trio at the Arcata Playhouse.
Paige, who said "I kind of learned pedal steel for this band," also plays with The Trouble, The Bandage, in a duo with Rosalind Parducci, and in the recently formed Aleister Paige Trio. His background is “jazz and fusion,” but you'd think he was born to the pedal steel guitar when you hear the soaring music above the songs. Bynum runs a medical equipment business full time so keeps himself free for just The Handshakers.
Founding member Walker has taken a leave from the band to concentrate on his guitar business and stepping in for him is the newest Handshaker, Barney Doyle. Doyle lived in Humboldt County in the early 1970s and met Davidson in Berkeley in 1976. He put in seven years with Mickey Hart and Planet Drum.He spent the last six years in Baton Rouge and has moved back to the area to work as the controller at the North Coast Co-op. He'll play guitar and maybe mandolin, but hasn't joined a host of other bands like the others, at least “not yet.” He's not on the CD but we look to hear good things from him.