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Doing what comes naturally

Tallahassee make timeless old town music on Wolfe Moon
By CHRIS CONTI  |  September 22, 2009

KEEPING IT SIMPLE Tallahassee take it outside.

One aspect that differentiates Providence-based band Tallahassee from the rest of their acclaimed indie-folk peers currently blooming around these parts is a lead singer/guitarist who wore a Pats uniform and gave guitar lessons to linebackers and fellow linemen. But a sneak peek at the debut full-length disc, Wolfe Moon (available November 14), proves this is no gimmick or hobby-turned-craft. Tallahassee frontman Brian Barthelmes speaks softly and carries a big beard, a burly dude who just switched vocations from bruising offensive lineman to social worker and budding singer/songwriter, penning most of the lyrics with help from Rhodes piano/banjo man Scott Thompson.

Barthelmes attended the University of Virginia, where he learned how to “finger pick a guitar and banjo and fell madly in love with Bluegrass and old-time country music. Of course, I had to listen to some metal to get rowdy before a game, but my real pleasure came after a game with a porch, a drink, an old folk record, and my friends and family,” Barthelmes recalled via email while vacationing with the in-laws last week. And one need not be NFL-obsessed (guilty as charged) to get a kick out his recollections while earning a paycheck with the Pats:

“Creating art has always been my first love. I really did not care for football whatsoever . . . In 2009 I realized that I was miserable playing football professionally as I had no time for music, art, or giving back to humanity. I laugh in retrospect at my final training camp; I should have been memorizing plays and watching film, but instead I was giving guitar lessons to Junior Seau, Dan Koppen, Matt Light, Mike Vrabel, and mandolin lessons to Tedy Bruschi. I had started an illustrated poetry book for adults, and recorded an EP in my hotel room, which I debuted in the weight room. Coach Bill [Belichick] politely told me as he cut me that I may want to pursue a different profession, so here I am.”

Wolfe Moon is a gorgeously crafted merger of folk, country, and blues (the band’s name derives from the Muskegon Indian translation “old town”) in the spirit of Fleet Foxes and Crooked Fingers, and Iron & Wine and Townes Van Zandt are proclaimed major influences. The disc follows their self-recorded ’08 EP Cellar Songs; Thompson conceded the band was “never quite satisfied with how the EP turned out. “The new album is a big step forward for us,” he said. “We tracked the new record in just four days, whereas we spent about four months recording the EP piecemeal. Whenever we start to overthink something it usually gets discarded pretty quickly.”

The hasty process for the 11 songs on Wolfe Moon is belied in its overall grace and beauty. The finale, “Greg’s Song,” peaks and dips with delicately orchestrated mandolin, upright bass, Rhodes piano, and Alex Spoto’s violin. Drummer Abraham Kelso picks up the fiddle-picking with a rumbling crescendo as Barthelmes floats on through a simmering hush: “Through your teeth I know you lied/when the truth is found the sun will rise again.” But “California” is the one that has stuck with me all week. “ ‘California’ is sort of about ambition and having a sense of urgency about what you love and how that interacts with the relationships you have,” Thompson said. “We finished the music in a cabin in the woods up in New Hampshire, where we were celebrating the end of Brian’s bachelorhood.”

And only Barthelmes could dig up beauty behind a twisted line in “Hiding On a Hill”: “Walked out of the front door to find the bones of our first cat/Well, they had been drudged up by the neighbor’s dog the night before last.”

“Brian came up with the first line to make me laugh because I’m particularly fond of my cat, and it ended up sticking,” Thompson told me. “That’s one of Brian’s superpowers, he’ll just start singing and it will sound like a fully-formed song.

“We’re all still pretty new to this, but we feel incredibly blessed to be part of this Providence indie-folk boom,” Thompson noted. “Each band is unique, and we complement and influence each other without it ever feeling incestuous. We’re just trying to make the music that comes naturally to us.”

Barthelmes left the NFL trenches for more peaceful (and fulfilling) pastures, as clearly evidenced by the closing line in his email: “I love a soft song, a finger-picked guitar, and a good story.”

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 See all articles by: CHRIS CONTI

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