“Time hangs heavy on the vine/Let’s make wine,” Ryan Montbleau sings in the lulling, sensual verse that gives his group’s new album its title. Ryan Montbleau Band has been tending its own musical vineyard for a few years, on the patient cusp of a breakthrough. Their distinctive, long-fermenting blend of neo-folk, classic soul, and kick-out-the-jams Americana finally comes to full fruition in Heavy on the Vine, due out September 21, 2010 on indie Blue’s Mountain Records. It’s an album that represents the product of — and further promise of — a very good year.
It’s been a good year already. The group spent much of it both as opening act and backing band for Martin Sexton, including a round of dates with the Dave Matthews Band. Sexton in turn produced Heavy on the Vine. “I used to dream about getting to meet Martin Sexton,” says Ryan, “and now we’re getting hired as his backing band and he’s producing our record.
“He may not be a household name but to me and so many others, he’s a legend,” Montbleau adds. “But one thing he made clear from the start was that he didn’t want his fingerprints on this record. He wanted us to just play and be us.”
As a songwriter, Ryan recently contributed the single “Something Beautiful” to Trombone Shorty’s recent major-label debut album Backatown. Shorty turned to no less than Lenny Kravitz to contribute vocals and a guitar solo to the track, to help bring across the song’s soulful vibe. Ryan also co-wrote the Backatown track “One Night Only,” the tune Shorty and his band performed on their Late Night with David Letterman debut in June.
“I’m not one of these people who’s like, ‘Oh, we can’t be pigeonholed.’ I honestly wish we could, just so I could describe it quickly to people,” Montbleau says. “This record has folk songs, funk songs, country tunes, a reggae tune . . . and the end is almost like prog-rock. It’s all over the map, but it’s all us, and we always do it wholeheartedly. We’ve sort of come up in the jam scene, and that’s where our hearts have been in a lot of ways. But we don’t go off on 15-minute epics. We’re actually trying to make the songs shorter as we go. So I would lean more toward the Americana thing than the jam thing. But more than anything, we’re definitely about the song.”
The “us”-ness of the band comes through in Heavy on the Vine in vivid, funny, touching, and hummable spades. The opening “Slippery Road” playfully examines the fine line of moderation between inebriation and sobriety, a subject familiar to most of Montbleau’s contemporaries and more than a few non-musicians. “Carry,” the purest love song Montbleau has written, is in demand as a wedding song by some romantics who’ve heard it being road-tested. “Fix Your Wings” deals with damage and healing in relationships, with tight gospel harmonies adding to the surprisingly sprightly feel. Both the rocking “Here at All” and the ’20s-styled “Stay” address the itinerant musician’s thwarted impulse to settle in one place for more than one night at a time. An admirer of Paul Simon, Montbleau reaches some of his greatest lyrical heights in “Straw in the Wind,” which asks, “Wouldn’t it be nice . . . if you could reconcile the smile you want to feel with the one that you show?”
“For the song ‘More and More and More’ we had done another weirder version in the studio with a strange old synthesizer. But Martin said, ‘We need to try a Rolling-Stones-in-Nashville country version of this,’ with an untuned piano they had in the studio. And it turned out great.”
The Peabody, Mass. native got his first guitar at age nine but didn’t get the bug to become a serious player until he was attending Villanova University. He spent many years as an acoustic solo artist. His first album, Begin (2002), was followed by the live Stages. The first Montbleau Band recording was One Fine Color (2006). And by the time 2007’s Patience on Friday was released, Ryan Montbleau Band (Montbleau, guitar, lead vocals; Laurence Scudder, viola, vocals; Jason Cohen, keyboards; James Cohen, drums; Matt Giannaros, bass, vocals; and Yahuba, percussion, vocals) were hometown heroes.
The band’s unusual makeup was somewhat accidental, as the leader tells it; he never had it in mind, for instance, that he needed a full-time viola player. “It just evolved over the years, because I really didn’t have a sound that I was going for,” he says, before qualifying that claim. “Well, I knew I wanted an upright bass, I guess. And I knew I wanted the drummer in some ways to be more of a jazz drummer than a straight-ahead rock drummer. But that was all I knew. I’ve personally always loved the B3 organ, but the keyboard approach really comes from Jason (Cohen), who’s a vintage gear nut and tone junkie who loves old Rhodes, organs, Wurlitzers, Moogs, etc.”
Abject realism and a sense of limitless possibility coexist in Montbleau’s ever-ripening mind. “For the last 10 years, I’ve had this insane desire to just go out there and do this. And I face the realities that, okay, I’m 33 and I’m not selling out stadiums yet. I get more realistic as I go and I also get more appreciative of just being able to do this at all. My goal for a few years when I was starting out was to make a living off playing music, and now I’ve been doing that for seven years or so, and the goals change as you go. Now the goal is to spend more time practicing and writing and creating, and a little less time doing all the business stuff.”
Tempted as Montbleau might be to look toward the big picture, not losing sight of the small one is why the band has maintained such a loyal and evangelistically inclined base. “I still go back to my original philosophy of just one person at a time,” he says. “I never even told people ‘Bring your friends to the show’ at the beginning, because it wasn’t about them bringing their friends, it was about them bringing themselves. I’m trying to focus on the one person, because if they come and like it, they are going to bring their friends. We’re still grass roots in that way.” No surprise, then, that those well-tended roots have sprung up into such pregnant vines.