Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sounds, tastes & the power to unite

Behind every beer you'll find people – those who made it, those who drink it.

Quite often, you'll find a song, too. That's because music and beer are sensory pleasures – sound and taste – and share a potent power to unite people.

But that's just for starters (and when's the last time you went to a beer festival that didn't have a soundtrack?).

The parallels between music and beer roll on, like a jam band in a great groove, connecting with an audience that's dancing in the aisles.

Think styles – jazz, rock, R&B, blues, hip-hop, country, alt country, folk, bluegrass, classical, opera, big band ... bock, pils, dunkel, stout, pale ales, black ales, singles, doubles, triples, quads, reds, session ales, strong ales, old ales, wheat beers.

Think business approaches – big breweries and big record labels vs. small craft brewers and indie labels. Think shared experiences – Woodstock and the Great American Beer Festival. Think indigenous brews (kvass) and indigenous tunes (parang).

You get the picture.

With all that going on, it's no surprise to find pro brewers who are musicians away from the mash tun, and pro musicians who are brewers off stage.

Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboard player with The String Cheese Incident and his own Kyle Hollingsworth Band, is the music world's biggest ambassador to craft beer, brewing and homebrewing. String Cheese has nearly a dozen albums to its credit, while Kyle has a couple of solo albums under his belt, and now a nationally distributed craft pale ale, Hoopla, to his name. Not to mention a freshly made homebrew bubbling away in the basement of his Colorado home.

Both brews figure into Kyle's summer tour plans.

New Jersey's craft beer industry has two brewer-musicians: Bryan Baxter, a solo artist whose day job is turning out hefe and dunkel weizens and imperial pilsner for High Point Brewing in Butler and its Ramstein brand; and Chris Rakow, who's the guitarist for jam band Ludlow Station when he's not brewing tanks of Tripel Horse, Hop Hazard or Hop-A-Lot-Amus Double IPA for River Horse Brewing in Lambertville.

Bryan, 27, who just took Best in Show judging (for the Double Platinum Blonde hefe) at the Tap New York festival last weekend, sees loads of similarities between brewing and making music. (That's Bryan on the left in the photo.)

"Look at it side by side, the major beer (companies) are like the record companies. If you really want to get your record out there you have to go through the big guys," says Bryan, who homebrewed before landing a job with High Point and finished the first half of the Seibel brewing course. "Small craft beers are like the indie labels. The cool bands are the ones under ground; it's the same thing with craft beer."

Bryan's first disc, Simple Is Beautiful (available on iTunes), came out last summer; it's 10 compositions in the singer-songwriter/folk genre. On the album, Bryan sang and played acoustic guitar, banjo, lap steel guitar, mandolin and harmonica, and was backed by friends on keyboards and drums. (As a musician, he cites as influences Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Avett Brothers and Ryan Adams.)

"I've been in bands all my life. I never put out a full-length album because the bands would break up before we could do it," Bryan says.

His best chance at making an album was by going solo. "I got sick and tired of losing songs because the band broke up. I'm never gonna break up with myself," he says.

When he was gigging around (he's taking a break for a while), you could find him at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, or at some basement shows in Brooklyn. Bryan has also played at Maxwell's in Hoboken, trodding a stage that has seen its share of big names (David Byrne, John Cale, The Pogues, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth, to name a few).

Chris Rakow has been playing guitar for 16 of his 28 years; he homebrewed during his college days at Rutgers University, and has been running the brewing operations at River Horse for a year and a half. (An American Brewers Guild alum, he also put in some time working for Harpoon at its Vermont brewery).

With Ludlow Station, Chris continues to play with two friends from his middle school years, a time when he "learned every single Led Zepplin tune." The band released an album of eight original tunes last year, titling it simply Ludlow Station.

Brewing and music keep Chris busy.

"On our schedule coming up, we've got a gig every other week up until like July ... Old Bay in New Brunswick, it's a good beer bar, good music; Triumph in New Hope; there's this place, BBQ's, in Annandale; and Pearly Baker's, a nice beer bar in Easton, Pennsylvania," Chris says.

As for Ludlow Station's style, Chris notes, "We cover some Dead tunes, but I wouldn't say we're too much like the Dead. It's much more like jazz, funk, blues rock. Our instrumentals are more intricate because there's no singing. When we have a singer, we have a couple of originals, and when he's there we play some covers, like some Dead covers, Stevie Wonder covers."

Chris' influences are more expansive, however.

"I like John Scolfield a lot, his later stuff, his jazz stuff he played way back is good," Chris says. "I like mostly key players; I like Medeski, Martin and Wood a whole lot. They're kinda like my biggest influence. They're a jazz trio; they're just keyboard, bass and drum."

Speaking of keyboards, you'd probably have to scour the planet to find a musician other than Kyle Hollingsworth who has pondered brewing beer while performing.

"The music I play is very improvisational," Kyle begins, "start the set, get the boil started, then do first hop drop, run and do a jam for 45 minutes, do the second addition and then quickly play a five-minute song and do the third addition," he says.

Kyle laughs when he mentions the idea, but there's no question beer is a huge part of his life, brewing it and hosting festivals (Kyle's Brew Fest, done last year with breweries Great Divide and Deschutes, to name a couple).

"I've definitely spent a lot more energy on crafting my musicianship, and less spent on my beer. But it's always been there, and it's something I enjoy when I come home after a tour," he says.

"Part of my crusade over the last couple of years is I've been touring the country with my band and String Cheese, and I've been doing meet-and-greets and lots of other stuff at select breweries on the way ... from like down in San Diego, it was Stone. Then I went up to San Francisco, then I went up to Deschutes in Oregon, then down to Dogfish," Kyle says. "The vision was, for me, to connect the dots between music and beer."

Kyle's been a homebrewer for 24 of his 42 years, drawn to the craft by the chance to experiment and create something sensory, much like music. While on the road this summer, he'll be doing homebrewing seminars at festivals (like Summer Camp), bringing in tow an India pale ale he brewed just 10 or so days ago.

"I'm going to be like a 'brewru' ... we'll kinda explain the process and do some tastings, and hopefully get some people into brewing," Kyle, a professed hophead, says by phone from his home in Boulder.

That IPA he just made is the opposite of Hoopla, the brew he did with Boulder Beer that gets distributed nationally this month. "It's totally dry-hopped to the max. It's looking and tasting real good," he says, referring to the IPA.

"Over the last two years I've done a lot of different beers – mainly pilot type systems – in a lot of bigger breweries in the country. There's a great place called Avery here in Boulder; a local place called Mountain Sun (which did his Hoppingsworth IPA in 2009), there's a place called Upslope; Odell, I've done a pilot batch ...

"But this is the first time I've done a national, canned or bottled beer. So I'm very excited about that," he says.

With Hoopla, Kyle was thinking of Tennessee's Bonnaroo music festival.

"I went to Boulder Beer and sat down with their brewers and said, 'I want to make a beer that's a festival drinking beer.' Specifically, String Cheese is playing Bonnaroo this year, so I was thinking, 'What would you want to drink at Bonnaroo when it's 85 degrees, or 110 degrees, and 100 percent humidity?' I'm a huge hophead, so I wanted it to have some hops in it, but I wasn't quite ready to do the hop bomb at Bonnaroo," he says.

"So my vibe was to make it a pale that was a little hoppier than people expect – we were calling it a pale ale, but in my mind it's more of an IPA that's of a lower bitterness; it's not quite over the top. So it's an easy-drinking 5.7 (ABV), lightly hopped pale. The whole idea was to have something you can grab in your hand and go see 12 hours of music with, and keep drinking them, instead of one really strong beer for an hour."

And thus was born, Kyle jokes, a new style: FPA, Festival Pale Ale.

But in a pure sense, for Kyle, brewing and performing on stage are moments of creation, born in the alignment of intuition, impulse and passion that demand you make a decision.

Do you play a solo the way fans are used to hearing it, or follow the energy of the moment, the ongoing jam and the crowd's vibe, and take a chance by spicing that solo with something new? With brewing, do you follow your tried-and-true recipe and make the great brew you know, or take that recipe and play it a another way, adding some new ingredients that the moment at hand suggests?

"For me, it's all about taking a chance, all about taking that risk. That's the connection I'm seeing personally," Kyle says.


steve hb said...

In case anyone is looking for Ludlow Station at the gig in Annandale, the name of the place is actually "Ol' West BBQ". They sounded great at Shad Fest!
And Chris' beer is pretty tasty, too.

Jeff Linkous said...

Thanks, Steve. That's just off Route 31, isn't it?

Ludlow Station was great; love the hollow-body Gretsch Chris was playing. They reminded me of Traffic a little bit. I think they could easily pull off a great cover of Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

And Chris and the crew at River Horse do, indeed, make some tasty beers. They've really done an admirable job there.

steve hb said...

It's actually right on 31, a couple miles south of 78 exit 18.
LS was indeed great. I can totally hear the Traffic reference, but funked up a bit more. I'd love to here them do a take on Low Spark!
We were getting ready to leave near the beginning of their set and ended up staying the whole time! First time I stayed the entire shindig, emo band and all (who at least sounded tight, even if it's not totally my bag).
A walk across the bridge for dinner at Triumph and it was a perfect day all around.
As far as the rest of your post, I gotta check out Bryan Baxter. Already familiar with SCI.