The Rough & Tumble at Rockwood Music Hall / Afterword
By David Burke, Contributing Writer, Foreword / Afterword, September 24, 2015
The Rough & Tumble played Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage One Wednesday night. The self-proclaimed “teeny tiny travelling folk band” took the stage in Rockwood’s smaller room, for an audience of perhaps 25 people, to the gentle shuffle of a self-conscious crowd who took turns whispering their drink orders to the bartender and resuming their hesitant and stoic positions of reserved judgment around the perimeter of the room. The Rough & Tumble, a duo who’s Americana image is reinforced by their disparate hailing (Scott Tyler, the Californian, Mallory Graham, the Pennsylvanian) and their living-in-a-camper road-bound shtick, opened up to the room with lines about how small a band they are, and how hard it is to parallel park a camper. Okay, so they’re funny. The room was nervous. I was nervous.
Then Tyler started to strum and Graham started to sing and everything shifted. Graham has this huge, rich voice that tends to shudder and ripple in the middle of her range. Her inflection likes to run sideways into a country-style twang and take you with it. Tyler, who primarily sings harmony, deftly handles his acoustic guitar, as well as a kick drum, and some sort of foot bell shaker thing that I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know the name of. Graham plays an accordion and a melodica, for the most part, as well as a tiny portable piano, a banjolele, and variety of maracas and shakers. They strike me as entertainers from the bygone days of travelling carnivals. They sound great, but their songs are very colloquial, and they’ve decided to incorporate an old fashioned repartee in their song breaks. One begins an anecdote, the other cuts in with a joke and a redirect, both laugh and sigh, contemplatin’. “Right, Scott?” Graham concludes. “That’s right, Mallory!” Tyler affirms with a cowboy wink. Ah, those good ol’ times on the road! Gee, that sure was somethin’. And they’ve got it down.
But aside from the showmanship, Graham and Tyler have excellent chemistry as musicians. Their sound is warm and folky and relatable in an everyday fashion. Their latest record, a double LP titled The Rough & Tumble’s Holiday Awareness Campaign leans on a cutesy construct of recognizing underappreciated and neglected holidays to deliver significant observations about life in human interaction. This is the crux of The Rough & Tumble’s approach to songwriting, to place life inside of simple and daily moments and in this way, it becomes very American. In 5th of July, Graham sings, “I’m lonely as a watermelon rind on the fifth of July.” It’s cute, but it’s also pointed. A vivid image set in a mundane context to express something human.
By mid-set, the audience had doubled, and the respectful hush had lifted. The crowd warmed to the jokes and the music. Toes were tapped, applause was honest, and I was smiling. I dig their chemistry more than anything else. It’s their chemistry that sells their shtick, and perhaps it was that chemistry that I couldn’t see when I wrote Foreword / this week. Somewhere in the middle of the show, Tyler gave Graham a wink that wasn’t part of the gee-wizery. It was just an honest affirmation, and I caught it. Graham smiled. While some of The Rough & Tumble’s offerings are a bit of a reach for me, I must also admit that some of their songs are downright fun. Always Late and Never (Wahoo!) was my favorite, it’s twangy rhythmic strum and Graham’s lively “wahoo, wahoo” in the chorus. I also loved Not Polite, which was a record favorite of mine before the show and which Graham claimed to be inspired by a friend of her mother’s who said something mean about a picture of Graham’s first tattoo on Facebook. She sings it like a fifteen year old, the age she claims to be in the beginning of the song. In her voice you can hear sass, and indignation. It’s great.
I ambushed Tyler briefly after the show as he was schlepping gear off stage. The band has some exciting adventures afoot. They’re responsible for the soundtrack for the forthcoming Alyssa Pearson film called Pieces and Pieces, which to me, seems like the perfect opportunity for their sound, and later this year, they’ll be in residency in West Virginia for a month to flesh out some of their new material. You can find The Rough & Tumble’s latest record, The Rough & Tumble’s Holiday Awareness Campaign on iTunes and Spotify, and their earlier EPs and singles on the band’s website, theroughandtumble.com.
Foreword / Afterword
September 24, 2015