Parlour to Parlour, Episode 28: The Beehavers

Written by Music, Parlour to Parlour

The Parlour to Parlour journey takes an unexpected turn as Michael Fortes spotlights Bryant Denison’s gypsy voodoo folk rock collective The Beehavers.

The Beehavers

Parlour to Parlour

Led by a charming, long-haired bohemian foodie named Bryant Denison, the Beehavers have existed in various guises for the past few years. Though a regular band eluded him, Bryant’s vision of a gypsy voodoo folk rock collective began to gel towards the end of 2010, in a way that made The Beehavers’ inclusion in the Parlour to Parlour series a no-brainer. And then, something entirely unexpected happened…

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The first few times I remember having a substantive conversation with Bryant Denison, I almost thought he was a member of last month’s Parlour to Parlour subject, fpodbpod. He was always talking them up as if they were his own band, and just like at the Blank Tapes shows I would witness, Bryant would be there taking photos on a small digital camera and adding to the room’s generally upbeat vibe.

The BeehaversBy the time I first heard the Beehavers, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. The songs were there. Bryant’s vocals were low and full, like an Elvis Presley-inspired crooner, as he accompanied himself on guitar and ukulele. But his support was minimal (only a drummer, from what I recall at that first show I saw) and just like nearly everyone else around, he was on the tipsy side of jolly. It didn’t benefit the songs much at all. Second time I saw them was much the same way, though again, the songs were definitely there. “To Your Freedom” in particular stood out – for a room full of drunk people, it fits the mood perfectly with its “raise your glasses” invitation and swaying waltz rhythm. In my mind, the crowd-pleasing “To Your Freedom” became the signature Beehavers song.

However, I noticed a striking change in the band when they played at a new-ish San Francisco venue called The Blue Macaw last November, on a bill with Ash Reiter and Plantain. A new guitarist, Zach Rubin-Rattet, was part of the band now, and before the set even began my ears had perked up when I heard Zach casually warming up by playing John McLaughlin’s guitar part from the classic Miles Davis track, “In A Silent Way.” fpodbpod’s Sean Olmstead was playing bass. The Blank Tapes’ Matt Adams was there too, and another frequent Blank Tape, Steve Winchell, was playing various percussion instruments. Bryant had begun to play flugelhorn on some songs, and though he clearly sounded like a beginner, the parts he played were well defined and everyone was picking up on the fact that he was having fun with it. When fun times are obvious, how can anyone resist joining in?

Bryant Denison, The BeehaversSo when the time arrived for me to start contacting artists for this current season of Parlour to Parlour, Bryant was among the first people I approached. What happened very shortly thereafter I could not have predicted. He apparently knew that I played bass, being that I had subbed at an Anna Ash gig and a couple of Ash Reiter shows last Spring. He also knew that I was not committed to any musical projects. So he asked if I would like to play in the band to help fill it out. The band was booked for its biggest show up to that point, to take place during the latter half of December as part of the monthly Seaweed Sway showcase of local artists at The Make-Out Room in San Francisco’s Mission District, and Bryant sensed that I could help add some stability to his growing band. At that point, he had also added Erma Kyriakos on violin and Leo Suarez on cello. At first I thought I’d just be playing some ukulele here and there and singing some background vocals, but in the end I filled the bass slot that Matt Adams, ever busy with his own band and so many other projects, had been filling for some time.

The show was a success – the band sounded full, lively, and very together. The Beehavers’ sound had become much more defined, drawing inspiration from colorful characters like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and taking cues from contemporary bands like Devotchka and especially Beirut. It was the best performance I had heard from the Beehavers up to that point, and the music sparkled in ways that had been hinted at in the past but hadn’t quite translated until now. Bryant asked me to stay on board as a regular member, and here we are today.

The BeehaversIn the months since, the band has also integrated some straight-ahead rockers into the set, which are especially fun to play. Zach, drummer Jake Nochimow and I all particularly enjoy the dark “Oh The Drama” (this one bears shades of The Cure, Joy Division and Interpol), and “Leaving New York” is a personal favorite of mine, with its Ric Ocasek-esque vocal and infectious riff. And when Matt Adams is available to play keyboards, his presence pushes the music even further, giving the band some room to stretch out. There are many shades to this band, and much more depth, than had been evidenced last year. And as you might imagine, it’s really exciting to be a part of it and to watch how folks respond.

Though we usually shoot these interviews in the artists’ homes, Bryant didn’t feel that his current location in Berkeley would work. As he explained, he generally just plays his horn in his room whenever he’s home, and that’s about it. The real musical fireworks happen everywhere but at home. So it was decided that we would film this episode in my living room, since that’s where the band has been practicing nearly every Sunday for the past three months, plus there are plenty of spots around my neighborhood that have proven inspirational to Bryant over the years. Though we didn’t make it there during our shoot, another spot close by that Bryant has found to be particularly inspirational is Grace Cathedral – but we didn’t really need to go there since Bryant himself had already documented that location in his memorable lo-fi video for The Beehavers’ entry on the Universal Western Attractions compilation, “Dream Life.”

Bryant Denison, Michael Fortes, The BeehaversA note about the performance:

The weather was so beautiful when we filmed this episode, and we were feeling so good about it, that we decided to film performance footage both at Jack Kerouac Alley and at Washington Square, two iconic locations in San Francisco’s North Beach district. For the occasion, Bryant asked Mike Rawlinson from the band New Cadence, Mike’s wife Janet Rawlinson, and our friend Kyle Thomas to play trumpet, French horn and accordion, respectively. Erma also brought her friend Sarah Bonomo to play clarinet, making The Beehavers an unprecedented ten-piece for the day.

While you will see bits of both the Jack Kerouac Alley and Washington Square performances in the interview video, the performance video was entirely unexpected. While we were playing in Washington Square, an employee from the nearby Goorin Bros. hat shop approached us and asked if we would like to set up in front of their store and play there for a little while. In exchange, they comped all nine of us (the full band plus videographer Garrett Eaton, minus Erma and Sarah who had left after the Jack Kerouac performance for a another commitment) with hats. It was one of those “only in San Francisco” moments that we all live for. And seriously, the hats they gave us were pretty sweet. You’ll see ’em on our heads at the next show.

The Beehavers, “Not Too Many Hours”

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Hear more from The Beehavers (from the forthcoming album The Fairgrounds):
The Beehavers – The Fairgrounds
The Beehavers – Run Away With Me

Hear even more from The Beehavers:

Keep up with The Beehavers at their Facebook profile too!