By John Rumler
Ringo Starr got it right when he said, “You know, it don’t come easy…”
One of Portland’s more durable and versatile blues-roots bands, The Reverb Brothers, is celebrating their 10th anniversary, and nothing came easy for them either. With all members born in the 1950s, The Reverbs have been around the block in music as well as in life. Most of them have been in and out of different bands for several decades.
“They’ve been through a lot, had a number of personnel changes, but they’ve had a solid core for a while now,” said Emory Wilson, a Portland area bass player who recently performed with The Reverbs. “I love playing with them. They know each other very well, they’re loose and fun and they are firing on all cylinders.”
Holding a band together isn’t easy. Different personalities and musical styles and the day-to-day demands of work, family, bills, and the additional time needed for practicing can grate on the nerves. This, combined with the roller-coaster of touring and performing live—along with the jostling and sometimes colliding egos has tolled the death knell for many a good band.
For the survivors, such as The Reverb Brothers, who avoid crashing on the shoals of ego, discontent, and burnout, the bonds often become close.
“We’ve had healthy differences of opinion, sure, but not a single big argument or blow up since we started,” said Doug Marx, 64, co-founder and rhythm guitarist. “In many ways we really are like a family, one that respects and cares about each other.”
The other co-founder and the leader of The Reverb Brothers, Claes Almroth, 59, grew up in the Bay area. His mom played piano dabbling in boogie woogie and he avidly listened to everything from Slim Harpo and Johnny Cash, to Buck Owens, Marvin Gaye and the Rolling Stones. He began piano lessons at 12 and picked up his first harmonica a few years later. At the age of 13, Almroth visited the Jazz Preservation Hall in New Orleans seeing some of the original creators of jazz. “It changed my life. These guys were all born in the 19th century and were in their 70s, but they rocked the house like you couldn’t imagine.”
Almroth’s musical landscape was expansive and colorful early on. Thanks to Bill Graham, who booked such diverse artists such as Moby Grape, Ravi Shankar, and Albert King on the same bill at the Fillmore West, he was exposed to a wild kaleidoscope of music.
Clae’s musical influences include Little Walter, Slim Harpo, Sonny Boys I and II, Charley Musselwhite and Kim Wilson on harmonica and Ray Charles and Otis Spann on piano. A few of the other the artists that shaped his music include JJ Cale, Memphis Slim, Peter Green, Herbie Hancock, the early Stones, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Willie Nelson.
When the Almroths moved to Eugene in the mid-70s, Claes studied music at Lane Community College and formed Acme Rhythm & Blues Jug Band. He also played in several local blues bands before moving to Portland in 1982 and helped form Electric Bill and the Killerwatts, an edgy blues band that lasted10 years and morphed into The Blueprints, a 5-piece blues band still active. He also played in Johnny Ward’s Eagle Ridin’ Papas, a good-time jug band and the acoustic trio Nobody’s Sweethearts before starting up The Reverbs in 2004.
His piano playing style ranges from caressing the keys ala Charles Brown, to boogieing like Roosevelt Sykes or Champion Jack Dupree. His harmonica playing isn’t muffled or distorted for that dirty sound; it’s clear, clean, and sweet. His singing is gritty and growly with a slight Southern lilt, strange because he is of Swedish descent.
Claes also plays in the New Iberians, a Cajun-Zydeco-Blues band and in the eclectic-Blues Claes Almroth Trio featuring guitar maestro Whit Draper and Reverb mate J. Michael Kearsey on bass.
Each of The Reverb Brothers is worthy of an entire story of their own. For example, electric bassist Kearsey grew up in Massachusetts and formed the Boston-based-band Under Milkwood (with pre-Cars vocalist Ric Ocasek. Moving to Portland in 1972, he was a founding member of UPEPO, a jazz/Latin/rock band that performed all over the West Coast for 11 years and he produced their sole LP, International Ties. In 1982 he formed the Rockin’ Razorbacks and produced their first album and in 1989, Kearsey joined the Brothers of the Baladi and produced eight of their 12 CDs. He’s also produced CDs for Lee Blake, Reunion Jazz Quartet, The Millionaires, and his own CDs: Suite for the Columbia Gorge and Silverthaw.
Kearsey composed the scores for five OPB programs including Oregon Portraits I and II and produced upwards of 300 folk music shows for Berkshire Snow Productions and also hosted the KBOO weekly jazz program, Music for Sore Ears for 11 years. He’s served as vice president of the Portland Musical Association, board member of the Portland FolkMusic Society, board member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and is a 35-year member of National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
He greatly respects the fact that The Reverbs dig deep to find the original versions of many of the blues, rags, hokum, and standards they want to play. “That’s so much more satisfying than learning the same song from a Clapton album,” he explains. “We go to the original LPs and 78s and also study the biographies of the composers.”
Coronet player Dave Duffield grew up in Iowa and Missouri where he became steeped in Kansas City’s rich musical history. He began playing coronet—which is similar to trumpet, but with a richer, mellower tone–at the age of 9 and eventually joined the legendary Memphis Horns and performed with them on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion in 2001 and 2002. He also played with KC Brass & Electric, a smoking jazz/blues band that had a huge regional following.
Duffield, who is affectionately called “Gutbucket” and “Duffy,” moved to Oregon 11 years ago and met Almroth and Marx when they were playing in the Eagle Ridin’ Papas. He sat in with them on a few occasions and when they formed The Reverb Brothers he was invited to join them and did in 2006.
“I had to reinvent my style,” Duffield said. “They were used to playing together in small blues or jug bands, while I played in horn sections. It took me a while to feel musically comfortable with them.”
The Reverbs figured Duffield’s coronet playing would spice up their band, but Almroth says his impact has been truly profound. “Dave opened up new avenues for us. He brings that old-time jazz flavor and extended our roots, soul, and country capabilities. We’ve added songs such as ‘St. James Infirmary’ and put a different take on others. We now can do blues with almost no boundaries.”
Lead guitarist and vocalist Allan Lemley, 58, grew up on a wheat ranch in Eastern Oregon in a musical family. He bought a Hofner bass in 1971 and hooked up with a few amateur bands in his college days. He later switched to lead guitar and played with Almroth in the Killerwatts, and when Claes and Marx began appearing as The Reverbs Lemley joined them a short time later. Lemley, who owns an advertising agency and a film production company, also had to change his style. The bands he played in were dominated by fast, loud electric guitar, while The Reverbs were blues and roots oriented. “I had to tone it down and play more subtly and learn to pick my spots,” Lemley said. Now the crisp, stinging guitar licks on his Fender Telecaster are eerily reminiscent of a Keith Richards or Steve Cropper.
Through a combination of talent, focus, and hard work, Marx had climbed to the upper level of Portland’s literary community as a poet, feature writer and teacher. He was a board member of Northwest Writers and several other organizations and seemed to be cruising along when he suddenly took a detour to pursue a lifelong dream of playing in a jug band.
At the age of 42 he began taking lessons from guitar standout Whit Draper and continued for 7 years. It so happened that Marx lived across the street from Almroth for nearly 25 years in southeast Portland. “Claes is a great guy. Besides being my best friend, he also became my musical mentor,” Marx said.
The two played in several bands before co-founding The Reverb Brothers 10 years ago. “Doug, as rhythm guitarist, is the heartbeat of The Reverbs,” said Almroth. “His sound drives the band, we all play off of that and he’s also a talented song writer.”
Marx’s joy in performing is contagious. He is the most engaging and kinetic of The Reverbs, resplendent in a vest, slacks and wide brimmed fedora. Throughout a typical set, he banters with band mates and frequently harpoons friends in the audience. His encyclopedic knowledge of vintage blues and roots is an asset to the band and he is a strong vocalist, more shouter than crooner and well suited to up-tempo jug band tunes.
Setting the groove for The Reverbs since 2010, drummer Fred Ingram performed with Sheila and the Boogiemen, Bill Rhoades and the Party Kings, the Sportin’ Lifers, Jon Koonce, Wingtips (Dover Weinberg’s new quartet) and other bands. A few years ago he sat in as a sub for The Reverbs and clicked so well he joined. Ingram uses a stripped down kit and comes up with grooves for a lot of obscure rural blues and jug tunes that didn’t even have drums on the original recordings.
A native Portlander, Ingram’s skills as a graphic designer are as much in demand as his drumming. Clients include Rita Mae Brown, Nike, Pepsi, and he did the artwork for the New Iberians CD.
Ingram, who also sings, initially felt a little overwhelmed by the catalog of songs Almroth and Marx amassed, but now he savors the variety. “We roll all over the deck musically and hop from decade to decade with some original material thrown in,” he said. “This is likely the only band I’ll be in that will play Papa Oom Mow Mow, Witchi Tai To, Claudette, and Columbia Stockade Blues in the same set.”
The Reverb Brothers have produced one CD, For the Festival. and another, Live at the White Eagle, will soon be released. They play every Friday at the White Eagle, 836 N. Russell St., from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Families/children are welcome. For more info go to www.facebook.com/ReverbBrothers
What they say about The Reverbs:
“They’re great guys, kind and dependable and they play fun, energetic music. They’ve been jiving at the White Eagle for much longer than any other band. I’ve been here for six years and they go back way before me! I look forward to seeing them and their fans every week.” White Eagle bar manager Stacey Graham
“The Reverbs are a bunch of excellent, fun-time musicians. They’re lively, humorous, easy-going and you can never guess what they will play next.” Jacob “Sax Man” Potter, Portland area musician
“They are a positive, upbeat band that provides musical therapy” Bob Tatone, longtime Reverb Brothers fan