Don Merckle and the Blacksmiths | photo by Glyn Cowden
“I didn't want to have to keep reintroducing myself or my band every time something changed,” songwriter Don Merckle offers, explaining why he finally decided to front a band named after himself.
At least locally, his name holds some cache. He sowed roots in the Columbia scene with the Celtic-leaning Loch Ness Johnny and later with the roots-rocking American Gun. Merckle now resides in Charleston, but while his address may have changed, his local reputation is alive and well.
What: Don Merckle and the Blacksmiths
Where: Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St.
When: Saturday, Aug. 9, 9 p.m.
With: The Darnell Boys
More Info: 250-1295, conundrum.us
The Pugilist, the first album credited to Don Merckle and the Blacksmiths, doesn’t do anything to besmirch this legacy. The album distills further the Celtic and Appalachian strains that have flavored Merckle's past folk-rock exploits. The result is a potent batch of acoustic-led tunes, among them a few reworked songs from Merckle’s back catalog, giving past listeners easy points of entry into his new sound. But his choice to revive old material is more than a bridge between his present and past.
“I've been playing these songs with this band for a while, and more people recognize the way I play them now,” he says. “I wanted to have these versions available. While I'm proud of the American Gun versions of 'Fight Song' and 'Drunk Girls,’ they were written in the style I recorded them for the new record, so I wanted them to have life as they were originally created before I let them go.”
The new offerings explore other territory without pushing too far afield. The traditional Irish tune “The Leaving of Liverpool” is a great example of how Merckle can take typical Celtic sounds, amp them up, and make them his own without diluting their spirit.
“I think I'm drawn to the energy of the traditional Celtic sound,” Merckle says. “It's fun, exciting music full of honest lyrics and a lot of room for dynamics and improvisation. It's dance music.”
Balancing his traditional side with something a bit more contemporary, Merckle has long displayed a soft spot for the music of Lou Reed and especially The Velvet Underground; ”Foggy Notion” was a live staple of Loch Ness Johnny. Merckle’s diverse tastes inform the Blacksmiths’ restless energy, a trait that shines on the new record.
“I think there is a lot of honesty and attitude in the style of music I play, and Lou Reed personified that, which is why I was drawn to VU the first time I heard their music,” Merckle says. “It is the spirit of VU's music and the brashness of Lou's lyrics that I connect to; that transcends genre and can be adopted into any style of music.”
One of the other things Merckle has carried over from previous bands into the Blacksmiths is his longtime onstage foil, bassist Kevin Pettit, whose upright and electric playing has anchored Merckle’s melodies since his Loch Ness Johnny days. The other players include the equally experienced Stan Gardner on drums, Chris Lawther on banjo and Jason Brachman on guitar, a formidable acoustic lineup — especially when they’re running flat-out, as they do on “Girl in Texas.”
The Pugilist is admittedly a transitional record for Merckle, re-establishing his music publicly and acclimating listeners to a new aesthetic. Soon, he hopes to follow it with new recordings that will mine his past in a different way.
“I've already written another album based on my grandfather's life,” Merckle reveals. “He was a World War II and Korean War hero. His life with my grandmother was so incredible, I felt it deserved recognition, so I wrote these songs for my family as well as for myself.”
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