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Foreword / East River Bandits at 11th Street Bar

This Wednesday night, July 22nd, the East River Bandits are slated to play The 11Th Street Bar. If you don’t know the Bandits or the bar, don’t despair – both are properly off the beaten path, but absolutely worth knowing. I sat down with the band earlier this week to discuss the show this Wednesday and their recent 2014 EP, Whiskey and the Women, as well as everything from their upcoming September residency at famed Lower East Side proving ground Arlene’s Grocery, to country music, cowboys and beer.

Two East Village notables, founding members Rob Lilly and Dan Sweeny are an unlikely duo at best and as we sat down Monday in Sweeny’s Brooklyn apartment I was immediately struck by the contrast. Lilly, Texan, former football player, scruffy, shaggy and clad in boots and jeans is a perfect counterpoint to Sweeny, the north fork islander in flip-flops and a Grateful Dead wristwatch. This juxtaposition, it seems, is the heart of the Bandits sound. Brought up under different musical tutelage, Sweeny’s lead guitar and mandolin push a rock agenda into Lilly’s Texas country influenced songwriting style and rhythm guitar yielding a wonderfully palatable country rock that retains a catchy country vernacular and avoids the tedious twang.

What I dig so much about the East River Bandits is their fateful authenticity. It seems a conspiracy of circumstance brought them together a few years back in a small bar on Avenue A, where Lilly was singing a Justin Townes Earle song. Sweeny took note – Earle is a friend of his. Just returning from a tour of Ireland with his then band, Acquiesce (of considerable notoriety in the early and mid 2000’s) Sweeny bought a mandolin and was looking for a place to use it. Lilly, having wrestled out a handful of songs that would later become their 2012 debut LP, Down the Road, took Sweeny’s advice and his pedigree into consideration and two began to flesh out some of the newly formed East River Bandits’ songs. They began playing out while still working on the record, which they crowd-funded through Kickstarter. It’s heartfelt and properly country, a little boozy and a little wistful, and for my dollar it’s a solid record, but it’s also a bit reserved. Not so with the band’s recent work.

When talking about the new EP, and the band’s progression in general, both Lilly and Sweeny light up. The difference, they say, was in the recording process. That they’re a show born band comes across immediately; choosing to record without a click track was the first step in freeing Lilly’s voice and his presence on Whiskey and the Women and creating a more fluid sound. At the same time, Sweeny went with more mandolin, to my auditory delight. Having worked with the instrument more frequently since the Bandits’ inception, and thanks to some timely advice from David Immerglück, of Counting Crows fame, who was “nice enough to talk to me about mandolin,” Sweeny delivers a cornucopia of tasty licks. Favorites for me are Big Muddy, a story as fine as Marty Robbins’ El Paso, though properly fatalistic for modern times, and Fairytale, a riff-heavy ode to fleeting romance, for which Lilly summons his inner Mike Ness, half growling, half pleading verses before each anthemic chorus.

So what do they sound like? When I asked Lilly what he was after in the beginning, he said with a guilty chuckle that he was “just trying to write a Townes Van Zandt song.” As for Sweeny’s first approach to the county music and the East River Bandits’ sound he said, “imagine if you handed Angus Young or Ace Frehley a mandolin,” the type of sound you might get. That’s what you get here. Then he played me a metal solo on his acoustic mandolin without missing a beat. Awesome. When talking about influences, Lilly mentions a half a dozen names, many of whom I readily admit, I don’t know. He says he first decided he wanted to play guitar his senior year of high school at the De Leon Peach and Mellon Festival in ’98, where he saw Pat Green play for the first time and promptly went home and stole his father’s guitar. As for his current sources of inspiration, he says these days he’s probably “drunk on the floor, listening to George Jones.” And Sweeny, he likes to color his rock and roll a bit toward Rob’s Texas country, so Blackberry Smoke and Shooter Jennings get their fair share of attention. But the heart of the Bandits’ sound, says Sweeny, is in the collisions, the synthesis of country and rock and roll and I can hear it all over the Whiskey and the Women.

So that’s what I’m in for this Wednesday – a little country rock and roll, Bandits’ style, at The 11th Street Bar, which, I should mention, is a longtime favorite of mine, not to mention a formidable scene for musicians. And, as opposed to last week’s Foo Fighters show at Citi Field, you won’t need to shell out $11 for a Budweiser. That’s the word this week, boys and girls. There or square.

David Burke
Foreword / Afterword
July 21, 2015


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