The local quartet Palliard loves the Band. "They worked so well as a unit," says bassist Anthony Burton. "There wasn't this emphasis on a single front man or flashy solos. Each guy would just step up to do whatever it took to make the song work."
Palliard's approach is similarly collaborative: Burton and guitarist-vocalist Chris Hamsher write the backbones of the songs, multi-instrumentalist Justin Brown fills out the arrangements, and drummer Jeff Panall shapes the overall sound as the band's recording engineer. This Saturday at the Open End Gallery the group unveils its debut disc, a self-titled, self-released six-song EP that borrows not just from late-60s roots-rock alchemists like the Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers but from more contemporary acts like Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips.
Palliard's first lineup took shape less than two years ago, and though the group has played only ten shows, it's made the most of its opportunities, opening for the likes of David Kilgour, Magnolia Electric Co., and Jens Lekman. Schubas booker Matt Rucins has hooked the band up with some of its best gigs: "All I needed to do was hear a couple songs and it was a no-brainer," he says.
Hamsher and Brown were the first members of the group to cross paths, meeting in early 2003 through their office jobs at the Art Institute. In 2000 Hamsher had moved to Chicago from Duluth, Minnesota, where his high school band had opened a few shows for an early version of Low. Brown, a native of northern California, had arrived here in 1999, after spending years teaching himself keyboard, lap slide, and pedal steel in a string of offbeat jazz combos and fatback blues bands. In summer 2003 Brown's girlfriend introduced him to Burton, who'd played guitar with local postpunk outfit Forty One Rivers, and in July the three of them started meeting in Brown's attic apartment to play. At first they just did covers, sticking mostly to pre-rock material--from Tin Pan Alley standards like "When You're Smiling" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" to lesser-known tunes by revered folk artists like the Carter Family and Elizabeth Cotten.
"The whole thing started out as something to do on a hot evening drinking some wine or beer," says Burton. "Chris would whip out some old song out and say, 'Try this.' Then Brown would add all these great harmonies. It seemed like the band developed pretty organically out of this shared appreciation for a different era of songcraft. Then it got to the point where Chris would play something and I'd ask, 'What's that?' He'd say, 'Oh, just something I've been working on.'"
At its first gig, in September of that year, the band sprinkled a handful of Hamsher's originals into its set. Billed for the first and last time as Masthead ("We picked the worst name we could think of," says Hamsher), the trio appeared as part of "Don't Quit Your Day Job," a Beat Kitchen showcase for bands with Art Institute affiliations. Panall, who runs audiovisual equipment for the institute, was in the audience, and by late fall he was playing in the newly rechristened Palliard.
Panall had attended Oberlin in the early 90s, where he rubbed elbows with Trans Am guitarist Phil Manley and future Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore in the fertile local music scene and roomed with Jason Molina, whose band Songs: Ohia he'd later join. In 1995 he moved to Chicago, where he and several friends turned a hundred-year-old former meat-cutting plant and carbon-paper factory in West Town into an artists' space, renting the upper floors from the owner of the machine shop on the ground level. At first he lived in the building too, and while there he started the prankish high-concept pop outfit Descendro Allegro.
Panall had just finished touring with Songs: Ohia in support of the album Magnolia Electric Co. when he saw the Masthead set. "The thing that I thought was so cool was how they were mixing tons of different styles," he says. "You could hear that they were open to all sorts of things."
That winter Palliard moved its gear into the West Town space, which already housed the Butcher Shop gallery and Crosshair printing, and in January 2004 the band played its first show with Panall behind the kit. The group continued to develop its sound by tackling a wide range of covers, including Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away"--both of which they picked up by listening to the versions on the 1973 Al Green LP Call Me. "That was kind of a revelation," says Hamsher. A similar fusion of country and soul would soon form the core of Palliard's sound, though the band's close-harmony vocals owe more to pop and rock than to bluegrass and its subtle swing is reminiscent of prewar jazz rather than R & B--and Brown's occasional squalling guitar solos wouldn't fit in either genre.
Panall, a self-described studio geek--"I like reading about the mike placement on old Led Zeppelin records," he admits--engineered Palliard's first recordings within a few weeks of his onstage debut with the band, capturing them live on a two-track reel-to-reel in the rehearsal space. In August he recorded a second batch of tunes in a more traditional session, with band members adding instruments one at a time to the rhythm tracks; the EP draws from both sets.
The music is intimate, wistful, restrained, and charmingly loose, with lots of breathing room in the arrangements--the narcotized waltz of "Signals," the trippy stomp of "The Song for the Setting," the country swing of "The Secret," the bittersweet Latin groove of "The Planets." A separate promo-only disc collects several equally good non-EP originals, a ghostly cover of Gillian Welch's unreleased tune "The Way It Will Be," and a three-part-harmony overhaul of John Prine's "Late John Garfield Blues."
Hamsher's cracked voice has the spaced-out sadness of latter-day Wayne Coyne and the fragile upper register of Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, and Brown and Burton chime in with chatty harmonies throughout. Thanks to the spaciousness of the song structures, you can hear the give-and-take between the players. "Maybe that's because of how we started playing in the attic," says Burton. "There's more room to listen to each other and respond in Palliard than in a loud punk or rock band."
Palliard already has 30 more songs written, including a dozen earmarked for a debut full-length. They'll start recording in the next few weeks, and though they haven't decided whether to go high-tech, low-tech, or a mixture of both, such details don't make a big difference to the band. "For what we're doing it's the song that matters the most," says Hamsher. "So hopefully, even if you recorded it on a wax cylinder, it'd still work, it would still be a good song."
Lesser Birds of Paradise, Palliard, Manatella
When: Sat 5/14, 9 PM
Where: Open End Gallery, 2000 W. Fulton
Price: $7 suggested donation
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.