The poster the Sunset Canyoneers created for their album release party in Oakland is an eye-catching throwback to the covers of pulp westerns from the 1930s and 1940s. A snarling, sun-tanned cowboy in full regalia — chaps, six guns, bandana and ten-gallon hat — stands guard over a gray-haired fiddle player fumbling for his bow. Canyoneer guitarist, singer and songwriter Jeremy Powers put the images together to give folks an idea of what the band conveys with its hard-rocking, cosmic California country sound. "I love the over-the-top images of the old dime novels," Powers said from his Oakland home. "I looked online for pictures that fit well with the music. When I showed a bunch of them to William, he asked me why I was always using cowboy images for the artwork. I laughed and told him, 'It's to compliment the gigs we're playing, dude.'"
Powers and William Duke, the band's second guitar player, singer and songwriter, are both well known in the Bay Area for their sterling songwriting and the impressive musical skills they brought to the rock bands they've played in. Powers was a member of Red Planet and The Parties; Duke played bass in The Happy Regrets and The Bye Bye Blackbirds, as well as making a series of solo records. Powers said the move into country music wasn't as big a leap as you might imagine.
"I've known William, off and on, for ten years or so. When I was in The Parties, our lead guitarist was Ian Robertson, who also played with The Bye Bye Blackbirds. I stopped playing in bands for a while and thought about making a cosmic country single to put out on a vinyl 45. I was working with drummer and engineer Adam Symons. He suggested calling William in to play bass. When we got together to go over the tunes for the single, he brought along a bunch of his own country-flavored songs. After we swapped a few ideas, he got excited. He said we should make an album and start a band, so that's what we did."
Sunset Canyoneers sounds like a greatest hits album. The melodies are illuminated by Duke's lush multi-tracked harmony vocals and the brash rock edge of Robertson's sharp, focused electric guitar solos. The cheerful surge of a pedal steel guitar and a galloping backbeat make "High in the Sky" take off into the stratosphere. Powers' high tenor could be describing the delight of a sunny day, the buzz of controlled substances, or the freedom of life in the California countryside. "Half Past One" is a catchy country blues, with Robertson's twang drenched guitar hook driving the message home; "Bluejay" is a snappy R&B tune, with a solid beat and touching vocal from Powers that drops Biblical references into a lyric that describes the pain of unrequited love. "Doncha Go Talking" adds acoustic piano to a jaunty celebration of good times and infatuation. The album unfolds beautifully, with a warm, larger-than-life sound that echoes the feel of the classic country rock albums of the late 60s and early 70s, without sounding derivative.
"I've been into folk music since I was a kid," he said. "I was a Deadhead in high school and I've always been a big Beatles fan. I was in pop bands for years, slowly getting louder and harder, finishing up in a power pop band with Beatles-inspired harmonies. On my own, I always listened to a lot of folk and Americana. I think I was taking the same trajectory as the Byrds, moving over to country from rock. It was an evolution. The bands I was in dabbled in country, maybe using a steel guitar on a tune or two, but they didn't want to go full time into a country thing, although I wouldn't call what we do pure country. It's more California cosmic country rock. We're not going full tilt into the tear-in-your-beer thing yet. I don't know if that would be authentic, but we're having fun doing what we're doing.
Its crisp fidelity makes it hard to believe it was recorded in Duke's living room.
Duke lives in Oakdale, at the foot of the California gold country. The band set up a recording space in his home to lay down the basic tracks of its debut. "It took two years to record and produce ourselves, but it was a lot of fun," Powers said. "In a recording studio, it's 'boom, boom, boom' and you get it done. Making an album on your own takes longer, but it's super enjoyable. You can make sure you get every sound, every note, exactly the way you want it. We did different versions of the songs, with different arrangements, which you can't do when you're on the clock in a traditional studio. The hour-and-half drive to Oakdale gave me time to think about what we were going to do. It fit the music to be recording out in the country.
"Usually bands get together and play a lot of gigs, writing songs and refining them before you go into the studio as a band. We already had nine songs written, so we started laying down the basic tracks before we'd played live. Ian was my first choice for lead guitar and he joined immediately. I played acoustic guitar, William played bass and Adam played drums. We recorded the basics, without vocals, on a Tascam 38 reel-to-reel recorder onto half inch, analog tape. Then we dumped it into Logic to add Ian's guitars, the vocals and the harmony vocals William composed. Harmonies come naturally to him. He added parts to my songs that knocked me out when I heard them. Analog makes things sound fatter and bigger, but when it comes to guitars and vocals, it's a lot easier in Logic."
With the album ready for release, the Canyoneers began playing select gigs to prepare for the album release party that will take place this Friday at the Rockridge Improvement Club. "We can do all the harmonies live, and William's switched to acoustic upright bass, to give things a more country/folk sound. When you hear us in a bar, with spilling beer and cigarette smoke, it's different from what you hear when you play the album in your living room, or driving a car. We'll be doing the whole record, with some appropriate covers done our way, with a more expansive approach. If we do Neal Young's 'Down By the River,' it can go on for 15 minutes or more. We'll also be recording the show, so a live album may be in the offing. Who knows?"
Sunset Canyoneers CD release party, Friday, March 6, 9 pm, free, Rockridge Improvement Club, 5515 College Avenue, Oakland, 510-502-5751, TheRICOakland.com