Two Gallants

Worth the wait

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On the surface, Two Gallants seem to be your standard-issue, dime-a-dozen folk-rock band of the same ilk as every other bearded band currently taking up residence from one side of the radio dial to the other. They took their name from a James Joyce story. Their songs are about things gothic and biblical. They’ve released most of their albums on Saddle Creek, home to such artists as Bright Eyes and Cursive. Their hair is artfully disheveled. They wear a lot of plaid.

However, as with so many things, to give this San Francisco duo only a cursory glance is to do them and yourself a disservice. Because there is more to Two Gallants than meets the eye.

First of all, Two Gallants really is just two guys—Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel. The former is the band’s singer and guitar player. The latter, its drummer and backing vocalist. Other instrumentation is involved here and there, but it’s sparse and secondary.

Unlike most bands in which each member has a singular and distinct musical history they bring to bear in the formation of some kind of whole, Stephens and Vogel started playing music together as tweens and have been playing and recording and touring with each other nearly all of their musical lives. And, while the brand of dark Americana Two Gallants peddles is commonplace enough these days, when they first started playing shows 10 years ago, they were ever so slightly ahead of their time.

For awhile there—for several years, in fact—Two Gallants was a band on a mission. Critical response to their albums was generally positive, if a little confused by Stephens’ love of distortion and pinched-sounding vocal stylings and Vogel’s unexpected drumming, and the band was generating the kind of steady buzz that seemed to bode well for their future. For their part, Two Gallants did everything they could to feed that buzz, touring relentlessly, playing every backwoods bar, basement show and off-the-beaten-path venue they came across. If they could set up and play somewhere, that’s exactly what they did. Ever-voluble, Stephens wrote song after song, gave interview after interview—in short, Two Gallants was a band possessed. That, and their well-reported penchant for trouble (in a now-infamous incident, Vogel was once tasered onstage by a Houston police officer), made keeping an eye on Two Gallants both easy and interesting.

The good news was that their manic pace had its intended effect: The venues Stephens and Vogel played began to be bigger and cleaner, their audiences larger and more diverse, the depth and breadth of their draw stronger and more far-flung. As well, other bands of the same sort as Two Gallants were gaining traction elsewhere, and rather than over-saturating this particular musical market, it gave them more of a foundation upon which to stand.

In short, things were looking pretty good for Two Gallants.

Which would make what came next all the more inexplicable.

Sometime around 2008, after touring like crazy behind their critically lauded 2007 self-titled album, and while their career was still enjoying a considerable upswing, Stephens and Vogel decided to walk away from Two Gallants. They weren’t quitting, they said, merely taking a “hiatus.” Even given rumors of internal strife and the frantic existence they’d lived during six years of nonstop touring, the hiatus didn’t make a lot of sense.

But to them, it did. And for four years, that was that. Both worked on music, but they did so separately. From Two Gallants, there was only silence.

As months turned into years, nearly everyone suspected this hiatus would likely become permanent. That feeling was further bolstered when Stephens was in a serious van accident, which left him unable to play music for several months.

Then, unexpectedly, Two Gallants roared back to life earlier this year—and, along with a renewed sense of purpose, they brought with them their best album to date, called The Bloom and the Blight. Heavier, messier, harder than they’ve ever been, the album also displays a welcome sense of surefootedness and level of maturity that’s been missing from previous efforts. For many bands, progression means polish, but for Two Gallants it seems to mean becoming more comfortable with their harder edges as they make peace with their tumultuous past.

The duo’s Jan. 16 show at the Shakedown will be the start of a month-long tour for the band, which will take them down the West Coast before landing them in Australia for a series of shows. At this point, Stephens and Vogel are pretty circumspect with regard to plans for anything but the nearest of futures, well aware their current state of stability is both hard-won and a long time in coming.

But if the music they’re making now is any indication, whatever comes next from Two Gallants will be worth the wait—however long that may be.

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