Music

A Folk Opera That Gives the Devil His Due

Sam Chase’s response to the death of the album was to write and record an 18-song opus that can’t be enjoyed piecemeal.

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Sam Chase, the front man of The Sam Chase and The Untraditional, has always been a maverick, so he spent the last two years writing and recording The Last Rites of Dallas Pistol. It's a rock opera that would have taken up both sides of two LPs, if it had come out before digital media redefined the music business.

"Albums don't play as much of a role in people's lives as they used to," Chase bemoaned in an interview. "'What's your favorite album?' used to be one of the top five questions you asked when you met people. These days, people listen to singles and playlists. They seldom sit down and listen to a whole record. ... People access music like they access water. You turn on a tap and out flows the free music, but they're quick to move on to the next song. I became angry and disgusted by it. When I get mad about something, I double down and do the exact opposite. So I wrote an 18-song rock opera that can't be enjoyed by breaking it down. You have to take some time to listen to it and digest it."

With the help of the six musicians in The Untraditional, Chase poured his heart and soul, and quite a bit of time and money, into bringing the saga of Dallas Pistol to life. "The story showed itself to me as I wrote the songs. It's hard to write an album where you're telling a story from start to finish, so I took my time. I let the inspiration move the narrative along. It made me feel like a spectator in the progress of the story, which was a good thing. It was an amazing journey to let the story evolve as I went along. There are parts of the story line that I left ambiguous, so the listener can infer their own narrative twist."

One of the songs on the album was written 15 years ago, long before the idea of a folk opera occurred. Chase said he took the long view as the tale of Dallas Pistol slowly came together.

"I wrote and recorded three other albums, and worked a day job, as the story developed," he said. "Once I had the idea of a musician selling his soul to the devil to achieve success, the story wrote itself. I feel like the devil is a useful symbol, especially in American culture. He's a character like Santa Claus. You can use him in a religious way, or you can be a secular atheist, but you still understand what the devil symbolizes."

Dallas Pistol is musically adventurous. Chase wrote tangos, country ballads, New Orleans second line struts and mariachi horn driven Tex/Mex tunes to compliment his bluesy folk/rock melodies, although he's quick to explain he's not a folkie. "I started playing in punk bands, trying to be as loud as possible, when I was 13 or 14, the age of defiance," he recalled. "My parents never asked me to turn it down. They were just happy I was passionate about something.

"When I was younger, I listened to my dad's records — Dylan, John Prine, Paul Simon, Elvis, and The Beatles. When I started playing guitar, I went off into punk and heavy metal. As soon as I could play a couple of chords, I was writing songs. When I went acoustic, the songs weren't too different from the punk stuff I played — it was just quieter. I got a lot more people listening to what I had to say when I turned it down, but I didn't change the music or my outlook. Punk is the folk of my generation. The bands I loved had lyrics that spoke to a generation of downtrodden kids, much like the heroes of the folk era."

After spending years playing in bands, Chase was happy to be playing solo, but fate had other plans. "I was working hard to make a name for myself, booking as many gigs as I could. Since most places want bands, I started calling myself The Sam Chase, implying I was a band." That ploy worked for a while. Then he got a gig at San Francisco's Riptide club. "The booker said, 'You have a band, right? You're going to be playing a three-hour set and solo artists get chewed up and spit out.' The date was a few weeks off, so I called a bunch of friends and taught them the songs. That was the first show the band ever played. Without that show, I might still be solo artist or I might have given up on being a musician."

The band cut Dallas Pistol at New, Improved Recording in Oakland. Chase gave the band demos of the songs, with the fiddle, bass, cello and horn parts played on his guitar. They rehearsed with the musicians fleshing out parts and making them their own. "It was a heavy workload, but everybody in the band feels like it's their baby, just as much as it is mine."

Over the years, band members have shifted, but Chase says every former member is still a good friend. Some of them will be joining the band on stage at the Fillmore gig on Friday, November 29th. "This album took two years to make. We weren't recording everyday, because we all have day jobs, but I was there for every single second. When you're working ten-hour days, in a windowless room, on an artistic endeavor that takes everything you have for two years, you have your doubts that it'll sound good, much less ever be finished. I just kept saying to myself 'I hope I don't die or get in a car accident before it's done.'"

The recording on The Last Rites of Dallas Pistol was finished about a year ago, but mixing, mastering, making the CDs, and doing promotion for the launch took time. "The Fillmore show is our album-release party. It's a big deal for us. We'll be playing most of the album and we'll be having past members of the band join us on stage, so they can be part of it." 

The Sam Chase and The Untraditional Friday, November 29, 9:00 pm, $25, The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, TheFillmore.com

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