The Sadies

The Family Way

BY Jason SchneiderPublished Aug 1, 2006

Waterloo had never seen a gathering of musicians like this. In the dressing room of the Starlight Club, Steve Albini and Jon Spencer caught up with Neko Case, while Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor and Elevator’s Rick White mingled with Canadian outlaw country pioneers the Good Brothers. The following night the party moved to Lee’s Palace in Toronto, picking up the Mekons’ Jon Langford, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and the Band’s Garth Hudson. It was a scene worthy of Hudson’s final appearance with his original Band mates in The Last Waltz, but this occasion wasn’t a fond farewell, but the celebration of a band just hitting their stride.

As the Sadies blasted through the high points of their five albums before inviting the parade of guests to join them, it was obvious that what Albini was capturing on tape was not going to be a typical postcard from the road. Indeed, The Sadies In Concert, Volume One tells virtually the whole story of how Dallas and Travis Good, Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky have, in the past decade, become the focal point of a musical community that spans genres, geography and generations.

Bringing it all onto one stage is a logical way for the band to acknowledge friendships and collaborations, but it better serves to illuminate the wide-ranging scope of a band once simply tagged as "alt-country.” Now their influences encompass everything from bluegrass to acid-drenched psychedelia, Bakersfield country to dirt floor dance music, creating categories all their own, with room enough for anyone in touch with rock’n’roll’s primal origins.

"The Sadies embody the spirit of that time when rock’n’roll really meant something in people’s lives, before it died out in the early ’70s,” says Greg Keelor. "They definitely bring out that spirit in me. They’ve become the wheel, and the rest of us are spokes.”

The absence of a couple of those spokes at Lee’s Palace — notably R&B legend Andre Williams — couldn’t stop that wheel from rolling, and in its wake, Dallas Good now only recalls a blur of preparation. "The truth is we never thought we’d be able to get everyone in the same room — we just set a date and forged ahead,” he says. "We did whatever it took to make it happen, to the point of booking flights for people. But we also got really lucky, and I can’t stress that enough. We were drinking a lot backstage to calm everyone’s nerves about recording, which we knew could have made it sound sterile, and honest to God, I don’t remember playing the encores either night.”

Travis Good agrees that the album was a challenge to pull off musically. "We’ve always known that our strength is our live show, and I’ve been wanting to make a live record from the start,” he says. "But we’d also been through it before with Neko [Case]. At the same time, it was nerve-wracking. We mapped out how we wanted the show to go, and then we got to rehearse with each person for about two hours. During the shows, I was concentrating so much that I couldn’t really afford to drink a lot. When I could finally sit down and have a beer and a shot, it was such a release, it was hard to believe what had just happened.”

If there were any thoughts of using In Concert to actually mark a milestone for the band — as live albums tend to do — both Dallas and Travis don’t appear inclined toward that sort of sentimentality. But drummer Mike Belitsky, who bounced around the Halifax scene with bands like Jale and Jellyfishbabies, sees it as a testament to the work ethic that they, and their guests, have strived to maintain. "I feel humbled by the fact that so many people wanted to participate,” he says. "It did make me a little reflective, but this is just another step in our evolution as a band, and I guess as a family. Sometimes it gets dysfunctional, but whenever someone goes out of their way to work with you, you have to feel honoured. I hope people get a small sense of that with this album.”

Dallas, who oversaw the album’s mix, adds, "I think the record in its entirety makes sense as a representation of our tastes as a band, and what we originally set out to do, as diverse as that may be. Having everyone there gave us a platform to finally get that on tape. It’s not like we’re session men; we still have to stay within the parameters of who we are as a band, and everyone had to remember that this was ultimately going to be a Sadies record. If we couldn’t get that across, then it was just going to end up being a variety show.”

allas and Travis Good didn’t have much choice about becoming musicians. Not only named for country legends (Dallas Frazier and Merle Travis), their upbringing revolved around the Good Brothers, Canada’s premier country-rockers of the ‘70s, led by their father Bruce and uncles Brian and Larry. This trio ran with some fairly heady company, making their first album with help from the Grateful Dead and establishing close ties with Gordon Lightfoot. Travis received his first serious lessons from Lightfoot’s long-time guitarist Red Shea.

The old joke that Bruce Good likes to tell about how he got his boys interested in music goes like this: "I took all the instruments in the house — guitars, mandolins, fiddles — leaned them up against the wall and said, ‘Don’t touch them!’” The ploy worked and it didn’t take long for him to recognise their natural talent. "We would look at how dedicated Travis was and think that he definitely had the potential,” Bruce continues. "But then Dallas came along and became sort of the quiet genius of the family. At one point I actually discouraged them from getting into the business, but they kept on developing their own styles, apart from one another, which now I find quite amazing.”

By the time he finished high school, Travis joined the Good Brothers, first on bass then moving to guitar, fiddle, and backing vocals. "He played with us for about two years, and that’s when he got his feet wet doing this for a living,” Bruce says. "It’s funny now that I always had to remind him not to go on stage without his shirt tucked in, or with ripped jeans. As soon as the Sadies got going, they started wearing suits!”

While Travis played small towns across Canada, Dallas was building a name in Toronto’s mid-’90s underground rock scene with his band Phono-Comb. It was here that he developed ties with Phleg Camp bassist Sean Dean and the pair set up shop in a rehearsal space on Dundas Street. It became a hangout for guys like Belitsky and Sloan drummer Andrew Scott, at that point in the midst of their brief "retirement.” Dallas had been toying with the idea of a country band, but this quartet instead formed a short-lived outfit called the Maker’s Mark. It proved to be the template for the Sadies, once Dallas embraced his roots and encouraged Travis to join following Scott’s return to Sloan.

"Dallas’s relationship with country was always love/hate,” Dean says. "He grew up with it, so he got into rock as a kid to rebel against that. Even in Phleg Camp, I was feeling kind of trapped playing this punky art rock; I was interested in getting into traditional music a bit more. Dallas and I discovered that we had the same sensibilities, so the Sadies became this outlet for doing whatever music we wanted to do.”

With Dean switching to upright bass, and the entire band adopting a stage demeanour that evoked frontier undertakers, the Sadies began winning devoted fans with sets comprised of Ennio Morricone themes, excursions into Byrds-ian psych-country territory, and blistering, minute-long instrumentals. One of those early devotees was Neko Case, who enlisted them for both her solo debut, The Virginian, and as her live band. At a show in Chicago, they won over reps from Bloodshot Records, resulting in a U.S. deal for their 1998 Albini-produced debut, Precious Moments, before most people in Canada had even heard their name.

They grew off a steady diet of touring, finding natural allies in Blue Rodeo and the Jayhawks, and through Bloodshot, they were teamed with Andre Williams and the Mekons’ Jon Langford. Their charm was apparent to Greg Keelor the first time he met Dallas, when the latter was working at a Toronto guitar shop. "I was sitting there playing the Stones’ ‘Shine A Light’ and Dallas said from behind the counter, ‘You should play with me and my brother. We know every song off that record.’ We became acquaintances and I started to keep tabs on what they were doing. But I didn’t really get into them in a big way until they showed up at one of our ‘Blue Rodeo & Friends’ nights and did ‘Higher Power.’ After that, it finally clicked how great they were, and they’ve been my favourite band ever since.”

Keelor donated his farm studio for the recording of the Sadies’ next two albums, Pure Diamond Gold and Tremendous Efforts, and co-produced ’02’s Stories Often Told. With each release, they advanced their unusual position as Canada’s most popular touring act not signed to a domestic label. Their diligence provided a much-needed shot in the arm for a club scene still recovering from a post-grunge/post-techno hangover, and provided inspiration for a new generation of roots-inclined bands like Cuff the Duke to get on the road.

"I would never consider us to be a model for anything, but I think we are modelled after an entertainment tradition that’s more common in country and R&B,” Dallas says. "It’s great that it seems the further we go, the stronger our ties to that tradition get. We actually haven’t had a rehearsal in ten years, and I don’t say that to brag. We seriously do spend all of our time in the van.”

He adds, "We have been very fortunate to have gotten this far doing everything ourselves. Keeping total artistic control was the most important thing, but being with Bloodshot also put us in contact with many people who wanted to play with us when we were starting out, which gave us a lot of confidence. We’ve always tried to keep expanding our immediate family, and that’s required a lot of work, since our first three records were considered imports in Canada.”

The Sadies’ career is a shining example of taking the road less travelled, but receiving encouragement from Gordon Lightfoot makes the trip easier. "One of my first shows with the Sadies was for our Dad’s 50th birthday and Lightfoot came,” Travis says. "He told us afterward that he liked us, but he said, ‘Take some advice from me, if you want to be able to keep doing this, write your own songs.’ That didn’t sink in for a long time, and what’s even funnier is that we just released our versions of a bunch of Gord’s songs.”

These tracks were done as the Unintended, the group spawned from an unlikely connection with Rick White over a love of Lightfoot. The self-titled debut album is a spooky, modern psychedelic gem, and a new full-length offering is expected before the end of the year. Since teaming with White, Dallas has become an auxiliary member of Elevator, while White’s influence is heard in the Sadies’ gradual move from country covers to textured songwriting.

White first got involved during the making of Tremendous Efforts, recording some tracks when the band passed through Moncton and pitching in the cover art. But the partnership didn’t blossom until White’s move to Toronto soon after. "At that time Dallas and I were both in a dull creative area, so we ended up inspiring each other,” White says. "We’re both very similar people, but there were still things we could learn from our individual styles. We started playing garage covers right away, but also made a plan to form a folk-rock group, which is what the Unintended became.”

White views their collaboration as a sort of role reversal; he leans toward the roots end, while the Sadies tear into space rock. "It was nice to hear Dallas say that the Unintended is the only side project they’ve done where they don’t feel like the Sadies,” White says.

In terms of their approach to working with others, Travis says, "Every outside project has been done in a different way. Sometimes we’ve exchanged tapes in the mail, sometimes lyrics have been sent, and sometimes we’ve sat in a room and stared at each other blankly for hours until something popped up. The common aspect is that it’s been like having a first date with all of them.”

The list of artists seeking their input seems endless, but the band are hardly complaining; they see every hole in their touring schedule as an opportunity to stay busy. An ongoing task has been to complete the soundtrack to Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann’s upcoming documentary on hot rod icon Ed "Big Daddy” Roth. Coincidentally, getting into a rockabilly mindset for that project proved beneficial when they received a call from Jon Spencer to back up he and Matt Verta-Ray for dates in support of their Heavy Trash album. The shows proved so successful that a new Heavy Trash album featuring the Sadies is slated to appear before the end of the year.

"The funny thing is that Dallas and I were both huge Pussy Galore fans before the Sadies even started,” says Sean Dean. "We’d listen to those records all the time, which would annoy the hell out of most people around us. So to get asked to play with Jon almost seemed natural because we were already used to listening to someone use a gas tank for a snare drum.”

Collaborations aside, the Sadies’ next studio album could be their biggest step forward yet; they’ll record with Jayhawk Gary Louris at the production helm, and his acclaimed craftsmanship is bound to have an impact on the material. "We’re going to try to get it all done in two weeks in November, and I’m really excited because we’ve had to put off working with Gary for the past year and a half,” Dallas says.

It should be a case of perfect timing, since the deluge of activity has prompted all the members to contribute more to the songwriting process, especially Travis. "Your brain’s got to go in a lot of different directions with the amount of stuff we’ve been doing, and among the four of us we’ve been thinking of a lot of different shit,” he says. "I’m just hoping that we can take our time a bit more with the next record. Working under the gun can produce great results, but so can working under the sun.”

Good Friends

Andre Williams & The Sadies Red Dirt (1999)
A surprising pairing at the outset of their career, the band are perfect henchmen for Williams’ fractured take on country-soul, saving him from obscurity — or possibly a fate more sinister — in the process. "Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill” remains a defining moment for both parties.

Jon Langford & His Sadies Mayors Of The Moon (2002)
Langford gets to fulfil some rock fantasies, leading the band like Dylan led the Hawks in the mid-’60s. The results add more punch to his already passionate delivery, and the Sadies do well to find a place amid Langford’s dense lyrical imagery. The combination makes for possibly his most accessible work.

The Unintended (2003)
A Canadian psychedelic classic — in itself a true rarity — this album answers the impossible question of what would have happened if Gordon Lightfoot had hung out with Syd Barrett in the wilds of northern Ontario. The Sadies’ own material took on more day-glo hues after this experience.

Neko Case The Tigers Have Spoken (2004)
While Case’s sound has naturally evolved, hearing her front the Sadies still feels most right. This live set preserves her freewheeling side, albeit far too briefly, on covers of Loretta Lynn, the Shangri-Las, and traditional standards. It just goes to show that it’s hard to forget your first love.

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