The Mulligan Brothers:: Make That Fiddle Sing, Make It Dance!
By Louise Uznanski. Photos by Richard Uznanski and Louise Uznanski ©2014 Ontapblog All Rights Reserved.
As they finished unpacking and setting up their gear on the stage of The Watering Hole in Mays Landing, New Jersey, The Mulligan Brothers mingled with the crowd and made new friends. On their first trip to New Jersey, the Mobile, Alabama-based band’s fiddle player Gram Rea asked if there was anything we wanted them to do. Answering in our best South Jersey accents, we said, ‘let that fiddle sing’, to which Rea replied, ‘if I can’t make it sing, I sure as hell will make it dance’. And so he did.
Snippets of their music began showing up recently on my Facebook timeline. It was intriguing and worth a listen. Little by little, with each listen, it became clear that The Mulligan Brothers’ music was likable and sincere. A video clip sent by a friend in Mississippi of the band’s cover of The Weight prompted a look at Youtube for videoes of their music. There, the professional video of their song Cecilia topped the search list.
Underlying the words about lost love and freedom was the fiddle playing of Gram Rea. The smooth and sensual playing captured the words sung by Ross Newell and made the notes float like the night air in the deep South. The search to hear the band live resulted in finding a tour stop in New Jersey on their way South from a show at Boston’s Fenway Park.
The band’s name comes from the sport of golf. Having played for years and years with other bands in other configurations, the four band members Gram Rea (Violin, Viola, Mandolin, Harp,Vocal), Greg DeLuca (Percussion, Drums, Vocal), Ben Leininger (Upright Bass, Suitcase bass, Vocal), Ross Newell (Guitar, Lead Vocal) came together and immediately melded on all fronts. In golf to shoot a mulligan is to take a ‘do over’. This was it, their chance to start over. The band members are brothers in music where they get to do a musical ‘do over’ together now that four have become one.
The twenty minute trip to the Watering Hole Cafe led us to the forested area on the way to the Jersey shore and in the four hours we spent listening to The Mulligan Brothers, we were transported to a Bayou dance hall with congenial hosts named Gram, Greg, Ben and Ross. The forest behind the venue provided the background crickets, frogs and other sources of nighttime chirping. It sounded like home. Their genuine nature shows in their music. Life’s training from years on the road is reflected in their songwriting. They deliver a performance that is a smooth mixture of vocal tones, musical lyricism and storytelling tunes, most of which can be found on their debut album The Mulligan Brothers. Their covers span songs from The Band to The Beatles delivered throughout their three sets.
We found their music to be like a story with each song a chapter in their journey. The original music is mesmerizing. Ross Newell’s voice sings under the radar of the lyrics but is still present in the forefront of your ear. Blending with the additional voices of Rea, DeLuca and Leininger, the sound is like a Mississippi masala. They say that they write music they can sing live and it is evident that the music comes from real life. Some of their cover songs included Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down performed with the feeling written into the original recordings. After hearing Ross Newell’s lead vocals on Cripple Creek, the latter song began without Ross singing into the mic. We searched the stage for the singer. When we got to Greg DeLuca we found he was singing in a clear, strong voice while playing drums. This unexpected turn drove home the point that all of the band members voices can be used singularly and together their voices blend to pleasing results.
Ben Leininger’s bass is unique and catches the eye. Made from two suitcases found in a thrift store, the sound that comes from this handcrafted instrument is unlikely. Composed of suitcases and electronic gear, the bass creates a deep and penetrating sound that complements Ben’s vocals. The get-up is amusing at first glance but the sound is serious and full of purpose. It is also rumored that Ben packs his clothes in the suitcases when they are on the road but that could not be verified Wednesday night.
The Mulligan Brothers’ three sets included most of the original songs from their album which was named “2013 Alabama Album of The Year’. Each song is like eavesdropping on little episodes in someone’s life. Would the live performance take a back seat to the recordings? I was looking forward to the answer. To be honest, hearing all of the songs from the CD, especially my favorites Cecilia, One Trick Pony, Lay Here, Too Soon To Say, exceeded every expectation. What is heard on the CD translates to the live version and then some. The vocals, the fiddle, the drums and the ‘suitcase’ bass all come to the forefront in the live show just as they do in the recordings and it is the emotion and the meaning of the songs that rides on the musical stream of the fiddle, the beat, the voices and the bass that has made me a big fan of The Mulligan Brothers.