Sassparilla never intended to play on a stage.
Seven years ago, the band was busking on the streets of Portland, and it is still that intimacy they prefer, ending each show by crawling into the crowd, accordion wincing inches from listeners, harmonica solos unplugged but still wailing, and a cigar box guitar chugging through stumbling whiskey-slamming sing-alongs.
The band is made up of Kevin Blackwell (vocals, guitar), Naima Muntal (vocals, accordion, washboard), Justin Burkhart (drums), Ben Stewart (bass) and father-son duo Ross Macdonald (harmonica) and Colin Macdonald (bass). From raggedy blues riffs to Tom Waits style growls (Blackwell admits Waits is his man crush), and wailing male-female harmonies, Sasparilla's stage show adds a dash of punk grandeur and an air of genuine candor to its diverse music. Down-tempo blues arrangements spiral downward into guttural growls fueled by bottom-shelf whiskey and cigarettes. Just as quickly, Blackwell—and along with him, the audience—are bouncing off in a frenzy of speedy stomping and hoedowning.
Before the band's two sets in Bend and Sisters this weekend, Blackwell responded to the Source's questions about his sad songs, the hand-in-hand tradition of drinking and writing, and the band's upcoming album, The Brighter Side of Nowhere.
Source Weekly: There's a whole lot of tragedy in your music. Are you writing what you know? Or are your songs mostly fictional?
Kevin Blackwell: Vicarious tragedy? If that makes any sense. Individually, I've been very, very lucky. A lot of folks I know and love haven't been. Addictions, suicide, drug-related deaths, serious abuse. So, yes, I guess I am writing what I know; I'm writing what we all know. We all get angry, we are all a little overwhelmed, ashamed of something, made choices we wish we hadn't, struggle with one thing or another. I've taken these experiences and tried to write songs that everyone can relate to.
SW: There's also a lot of alcohol flowing through your music. What do you think about the Hemingway Philosophy, Peter De Vries quote, "Write drunk...edit sober." Does an affinity for alcohol make a good writer, or at least for good stories to tell? Or is alcohol the vice of the writer who can't stop their mind?
KB: I think "vice" is one of those common experiences I was talking about. Everyone has one. I choose alcohol as a metaphor. A metaphor for vice. Alcohol and the devil. I certainly can't speak for all artists, especially those who are far more successful than me, but I can say from my perspective: a little whiskey will fold the chairs and open up the dance floor. I would never say alcohol makes a good writer, or even creates good stories...but I would argue that everyone needs a key to the door of creativity, a muse. Whatever that may be, substances, a love interest, wilderness, isolation, pain. If you listen close enough, there is a story in everything.
SW: Both times I have seen the band you've come into the crowd and played acoustic after a plugged-in set. Is that a regular occurrence or was I just lucky? And how does an audience react differently to your music when you are on their level?
KB: We do that at every show. It's my favorite part of the night. You know, we never expected to ever play on a stage. We started out as a busking act. Going out on the floor away from the amps, for me, is a return to what it was supposed to be. Folks love it. I hope we are always on the audience's level, be it the stage or the floor.
SW: What do slightly unlikely instruments like the accordion and the harmonicaadd to the style of music you play?
KB: They make the musical atypical. If we played normal instruments, I would be afraid we would sound uninteresting and normal. None of us are trained (except Naima) musicians. I knew how to play the guitar, but not finger style blues or slide. Ross had just picked up the harmonica. We made the bass so Dan could play something since he played nothing. So, if we tried to play like everyone else we would likely SUCK!! I remember once reading an interview of Tom Waits (my man crush). He said, and I'm paraphrasing, he hears music like its coming through the walls from another room. Which I think is brilliant. I think we hear music like its coming through the walls from another room as it falls down the stairs.
SW: Tell me about that funky box guitar you play sometimes.
KB: The box guitar is my Grandmother's jewelry box. I made it in literally 10 minutes just for fun. Used a nail gun to put it together. I love that guitar! It has become a huge part of our show. I recently saw Paul McCartney playing a cigar box guitar. Funny how things come around.
Fri. Feb. 21
Volcanic Theatre Pub, 70 SW Century Dr.
$7 at bendticket.com, $10 at the door.
Sat. Feb. 22
The Belfry, 302 E Main St. Sisters
$12 at bendticket.com, $15 at the door.