The Fallen Troubadors perform in The Sound Room at WEEU, 830 AM in Reading, PA. Set includes “I Need You” at 1:11, “Heal” at 5:14, and “Time Machine” at 9:18.
From their Facebook page:
There are many ways to describe the sounds one would hear from listening to the Fallen Troubadours. But we prefer the following: If the most influential bands of the 1960s were liquefied and thrown into a bucket, the Fallen Troubadours would be the sponge thrown in, rung out and used to wash over modern music.
-Brenda Hillegas, Origivation Magazine
The ghosts of the Fallen Troubadours
Monday May 25, 2015 12:01 AM
By Don BotchEditor's note: This is the first in a series of articles that will appear periodically chronicling the re-emergence of the Fallen Troubadours.
“Looking at the world through the bottom of a glass
How the days go by and the nights go fast
Look into my eyes now, see the struggle in my mind
Not sure what is coming, but I know what I left behind”
So goes the opening refrain from the opening track of the impressive debut album of Hamburg’s the Fallen Troubadours.
That a band could sum up what would become its legacy so accurately and succinctly, right out of the gate, is bordering on the sublime.
The song, appropriately enough entitled “The Good Fight,” kicks off “Tall Tales,” which was recorded in 2011, the same year the band went on a 10-day tour of England that included a stop at the famed Cavern Club, where a band called the Beatles – whom they idolized and in many ways emulated – had made a name for itself exactly 50 years earlier.
But when the Troubadours returned stateside, things rapidly deteriorated amid infighting, jealousies and general bad behavior, and the “Tall Tales” CD, a 10-song collection of infectious indie rock by a group of musicians that revels in recording, never even got pressed.
“I always had this idea that the Fallen Troubadours was like an airplane with no pilot at the controls,” lead singer Bradley Stewart said when the new incarnation of the band gathered for an interview last Sunday.
This is the story of the band’s ascent and subsequent crash landing, and the recent attempts to put the pieces back together and get it rolling down the runway once more.
The Fallen Troubadours formed in 2009 out of the remnants of the Suns of Ivy, a band fronted by Stewart and his lifelong friend and rival, Brendan Steakelum. As children, they always played together and competed with each other to be the best, a dynamic that followed them into adulthood and provided fuel for the songwriting fires that burned within each.
The Suns of Ivy had a brief and troubled tenure but did manage to release an album titled “Somebody’s Everybody” in 2007 and land gigs at venues such as the National Underground in New York City, the Tin Angel in Philadelphia and even Bruce Springsteen’s long-ago haunt, the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, N.J.
Those experiences made Stewart and Steakelum yearn for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, so when the Troubadours came together, they had big ambitions.
“We lived in this fictitious world where somebody was going to find us and we were going to become rock stars,” Steakelum said. “We were just waiting to get signed, so we could just be rock ‘n’ roll stars.”
“Yeah, we were looking to get out of here,” Stewart said.
Here, of course, was Hamburg, the blue-collar northern Berks County town they loved but also found stifling. A hotbed of local-music talent, Hamburg also was home to the other original Troubadours: guitarist Mike DeLong, bassist Clif Conrad and drummer Brandon Reber.
Steakelum and Stewart had grown apart, and Steakelum was living in Allentown and playing in the Philadelphia band the Great Unknown in 2009 when he got word that DeLong and Stewart were writing songs together. He had heard a few of them – “Raisin in the Sun,” “When We Were Young,” “To the Ground” – and had to admit to himself they were pretty darn good. His jealousy getting the better of him, he came home to see what was going down.
DeLong and Steakelum were not strangers. They had played together in a cover band in the mid-’90s, and in 2004 DeLong had developed an interest in recording the songs his fellow hometown musicians, who were more than a decade younger than he, were writing. So he set up a studio in the basement of the Port Clinton house Stewart was living in at the time, and there they set about the task of recording every song – more than 40 – that Stewart and Steakelum had ever penned.
Inspired by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” Stewart and Steakelum would try just about anything when it came to recording, and DeLong went along with whatever they said.
“We’d make him do crazy things,” Stewart said, “like we’d say, ‘I’m going to throw change down the stairs and want you to record it.’ ”
“Oh my God, I thought they were crazy” said DeLong, who nonetheless was game and stuck around for all-nighters spent partying and recording.
Only he wasn’t much of a partier.
“Mike was never into drinking,” Reber said, “so when we were recording – all boozing and stuff – Mike would just sit there and drink soda and chain-smoke cigarettes.”
“Pepsis and Newports,” Steakelum interjected.
“All this madness was around him,” Reber said, “and he just sat there and shook his leg (his trademark tic).”
With Steakelum back on the scene and the Troubadours coming together, DeLong was all in and happy to be included in a band with musicians and songwriters he admired so much, but before too long, as the band started to explore the Philadelphia scene, playing for big crowds some nights and two or three people the next, his interest began to wane. He had a young family and also was accompanying a promising young singer, Eva Blankenhorn of Orwigsburg, on guitar, and was being pulled in too many directions.
“I think their priorities were much different than mine were,” he said. “Mine were, ‘I want to have fun, I want to play music, but I have other responsibilities.’ My wife and my daughter were obviously No. 1. And I think that became a point of contention.”
DeLong exited the band but never lost the respect of the others. He was replaced by Adam Moyer – a likable, fun and talented bandmate and perfect fit musically – on keyboards. Chapter 1 of the Fallen Troubadours’ saga was in the books.
By the time the Troubadours left for England in May 2011, “Tall Tales” was already mostly in the can. It had been recorded with Isaac Betesh, who signed the band to his Candy Colored Dragon psych-pop label after seeing it perform at Steel City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville and being duly impressed.
While the band was in the studio, Stewart heard from Kevin Shire, who had managed the predecessor to the Suns of Ivy, the Paisley Haze, and helped finance its 1999 self-named CD. Shire, who had connections in the U.K., said he had secured the Troubadours a spot on the bill of the International Pop Overthrow Festival in Liverpool. They were the only band from the States to be invited.
They wrestled with the logistics of making it happen, securing passports at the last minute and making arrangements with their employers, or in Steakelum’s case, quitting his job, draining his IRA and undergoing a week of self-prescribed detox in preparation for the trip of a lifetime.
“I remember you buying $300 Ray-Ban sunglasses at Heathrow Airport,” Stewart said, recalling that Steakelum was the only one packing the funds needed to live large.
They touched down without so much as a plan to get from London to Liverpool, which is at the opposite end of the country, but before long, they were feeling welcome on foreign soil.
With the help of a friendly Brit, they boarded a train for Liverpool, where, to a man, they remembered that magical moment when the sign for Mathew Street, where the Beatles were often photographed hanging out, came into view, and then walking down those famous stairs to the Cavern Club, just as the Beatles had half a century earlier.
“That’s where it set in,” Reber said. “All right, we’re in a whole different world now.”
“It didn’t seem real,” Steakelum added.
After playing the Cavern Club and wrapping up their set with a rousing cover of “Stand by Me” with the entire crowd singing along, they got to sign the name of their little band from Hamburg – the Fallen Troubadours – onto the same wall that said “The Beatles.”
For a band whose hometown gigs were more about partying than music and often ended with a bar full of people being invited back to one of their houses for more madness, England was an awakening.
“When we were over there,” Stewart said, “it was like everybody we met cared about what we were doing. We played at that Cavendish Arms place (in Stockwell). It was a theater, and it was totally full, and everybody sat and listened. It was a completely different thing. We fit right into that music scene. People loved us.”
“We felt like celebrities,” Steakelum said, adding that throngs of new fans would follow them to bars after their shows to hang out with them.
But as great of an experience as the trip was, it also marked the beginning of their unraveling. It was as if even that little bit of success had gone to their heads.
By the end, the band had fractured, with Stewart and Reber leaving the pad they had rented in lower-class South Norwood and heading off to ritzy North London to hang out with a new friend, the other three staying behind, uninvited. The seeds of dissent were planted.
By the time the Fallen Troubadours returned home to Hamburg, everything had changed. Whatever joy there had been was gone, replaced by anger, tension, disillusionment.
Steakelum: “Our personal lives weren’t matching up anymore to be in a band together.”
Reber: “It wasn’t fun anymore. Toward the end, if somebody was like, ‘Oh, I gotta clip my toenails tonight,’ it was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’re not going to practice.’ I think we hit a wall where we didn’t know where to go.”
They put the finishing touches on the record, but Betesh understandably wanted a commitment that they would get out and play shows to support it before he would invest in printing. He was asking for a promise they knew they couldn’t fulfill.
Conrad was first to quit, and Moyer joined the exodus in support of his friend, so for the remaining shows the Fallen Troubadours already had booked, Betesh stood in on bass. But by that time, the band’s – and the CD’s – fate was pretty much sealed.
These days, you can purchase “Tall Tales” digitally on iTunes, but good luck getting a printed CD; they simply don’t exist. Not yet, anyway.
Early this year, local musician Ron Nolen invited the Troubadours to play the private St. Patrick’s Day bash he throws at Nolen’s Pub, his man-cave in Muhlenberg Township, at the urging of Dave Weidler, who had given the band’s music a spin on the Y102 Homebrewed show he co-hosts.
“I explained that it was unlikely I could make it happen, but I’d try,” Stewart said.
By that time, he and Steakelum had lost touch with each other, both scarred by the band’s breakup and figuring their Troubadours days were squarely behind them.
But the Barren Wells, the band Reber, Conrad and Moyer joined after the Troubadours, had recently broken up, meaning all three were, technically, available, so Stewart reached out to them.
Son of a gun if they didn’t express interest, and on March 13, with DeLong back on lead guitar, Conrad back on bass and 45 whole minutes of practice under their belts, a makeshift version of the Fallen Troubadours – sans Steakelum, who was still on the outs, and Moyer, who had a prior obligation – took the stage to close the show at Nolen’s Pub.
“It was definitely seen as a one-off thing by us,” Stewart said.
They played a bunch of originals and concluded with a couple of jamming covers, including “Quinn the Eskimo,” that gave DeLong a chance to flash his guitar chops. And when they were finished, Reber crawled out from behind the drum kit and snuck out the back door for a smoke, certain they had stunk.
“But every person who came out the door after me said, ‘You guys were awesome,’ ” he recalled.
In a room filled with local musicians and fans of local original music, the Fallen Troubadours, dusting off their songs for the first time in four years, had gotten a serious buzz going that night.
It lit a fire under Stewart, who got right to work seeking out his old friend and asking for a reunion, which Steakelum granted. Stewart reached out to DeLong, Reber, Conrad and Moyer and asked them if they wanted to give it another go. DeLong and Reber said yes, and Conrad and Moyer declined, opting instead to pursue a promising new project called Not Without Texas with their friend John Lawrence.
Nonetheless, the second coming of the Fallen Troubadours was beginning to take shape.
For all their grand aspirations at the beginning, the Fallen Troubadours lacked the maturity, discipline and focus needed to become anything more than a really good band from Hamburg.
Reflecting back, Stewart had this take on things: “Our heroes were people like Keith Moon and Keith Richards and Oasis. We wanted to be them. We wanted the people to come see us and be like, ‘Those guys are (expletive) crazy.’ ”
That’s in sharp contrast to their sentiments these days. Earlier this month, on a Wednesday night, they came to the Sound Room studio at WEEU – not in Philadelphia or New York or London or Liverpool, but in downtown Reading – to record a seven-song session.
Steakelum was back in the fold, standing toe-to-toe with Stewart harmonizing into the same mic, a sharp contrast to five years ago, when they more likely would’ve been bickering Noel and Liam Gallagher-style into their live mics because someone had accidentally stepped on a guitar cord or missed a note.
Chuck Brantman was holding down the low end, the perfect replacement for the departed Conrad. Brantman is a natural fit, bringing a fourth part to their vocal harmonies and an incredible knack not only for picking up bass parts quickly, but for adding his own flourishes to songs he barely knows.
Brantman said he first heard about the Troubadours back in 2011 when his Hillbilly Shakespeare bandmate, Matt Thren, saw them at Canal Street Pub and was blown away.
And Brantman was in the house that night two months ago at Ron Nolen’s, where he opened the show alongside Caroline Reese and Matt Cullen and then stuck around to see the Troubadours’ set and was taken by it.
A few weeks later, on a Saturday morning, he showed up at Stewart’s house thinking they were having a one-on-one chat about joining the Troubadours, but instead he was greeted by the whole band, and an audition broke out.
Both the band and its new bassist were equally impressed with each other.
“You sometimes just know right away who you can play with, or more importantly, who you can’t play with,” Brantman said, “and it was like, ‘Yeah, I can play with all these people. This is good.’ ”
They’ve discovered they share many of the same musical heroes – the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks – and Brantman said he hears those influences in the songs he’s learning.
At the Sound Room, Brantman already was fitting in like he had been around for years rather than weeks. And DeLong was back in the big-brother role he had always embraced.
And as for Stewart, Steakelum and Reber, they checked their pipe dreams at the door and instead focused on living in the moment and appreciating those who helped get them to that moment:
Reber: “It’s your families sitting there; the people who mean the most to you in your lives. Brendan’s mom and dad, and Brad’s mom and my dad.”
Steakelum: “I was nervous, but my mom said, ‘I’ve never seen you so relaxed onstage.’ ”
Stewart: “My mom came up to me and Brendan at the end, and she looked like she was going to cry, and she said, ‘When you guys were up there singing into that microphone, all I saw was those two little boys who used to play in the backyard.’ ”
Steakelum: “And my mom said the same thing, and she started crying. She said, ‘I saw you as the kid that you were.’ ”
Stewart: “We’ve been through a lot.”
Steakelum: “Because you get into this whole wanting-to-be-a-rock-star thing and you forget what the point of it is.”
Suddenly things are moving quickly for the Troubadours. The summer bookings are rolling in, starting with their first public show on Friday at 8 p.m. at Mike’s Tavern in Reading.
In terms of interest in original bands, the local music scene has come a long way since the Troubadours parted ways, and Mike’s exemplifies that. It’s a place where the people in attendance will pay attention to the songs and applaud when they are finished.
The show will be a re-creation of the Nolen’s Pub night, with opening sets by Caroline Reese and Ron Nolen and Friends.
The Troubadours intend to play “Tall Tales” in its entirety, plus an unreleased song, “Time Machine,” and probably break out a few Suns of Ivy tunes, as well.
It’s just the first of what will be many steps as they begin to get back out there.
And as for “Tall Tales”? Its place in the annals of potentially great albums that never saw the light of day may not be a “fait accompli” just yet.
Betesh, the record producer, has come around a couple of times in the past few weeks, including to the Sound Room, to get reacquainted with his old friends and discuss giving the CD the proper release it deserves.
Who knows, maybe doing so will put the band on the radar of somebody important.
But in the meantime, the Fallen Troubadours are focused on doing things the right way this time around, with an emphasis on the music itself rather than all the distractions.
If they all maintain a proper perspective and keep their demons in check, Stewart will have a chance to pen some new lyrics and meld them with DeLong’s and Steakelum’s guitar licks, and the Fallen Troubadours will have a legitimate shot to rise again.
“For me, I want that humility of when people come see us, we’re not these arrogant dudes who think they’re better than they are,” Steakelum said. “I want people to get that these are really humble people up there playing music for us to enjoy it for this moment.
“I know I get to live in that moment with those people who are out there. When you look at it that way, it’s pretty amazing.”
Stewart is just happy to have back his band and his lifelong friend: the kid he tossed footballs with growing up and who was at his side when he was 10 years old and learned three days before Christmas that his father had just died in a car crash.
“I sleep a lot better now (that the band is back together),” Stewart said. “I feel happy about it. Brendan’s been like my brother my whole life, and for the past couple of years we’ve barely had any communication whatsoever. And it’s almost like unbelievable now that I talk to Brendan again every day.”