BYRDS OF PREY: Circling in a sky near you by Joel Patterson
Byrds of Prey-- I don't know if this is the best name for this four man ensemble that plays ballsy, driving "Southern rock," a phrase that makes lead singer and songwriter Art LaFleur cringe, by the way, but it's a shoe that fits. Find another word for it: aggressive, even searing guitar riffs; flowing, sweeping melodies; looping chord patterns tinged with the bitter and the sweet in equal measure-- all happening in a laid-back, grooving context. If the singer is screaming, he'll most likely be screaming "Everything's fine!"
Troy Night Out is a monthly street festival happening throughout the summer, spread across the blocks of the picturesque old town. Bands set up on the sidewalks and parks, alongside street vendors and shopkeepers staying open after hours. There's something ever so slightly magical about this-- the warm summer air, the music echoing down the streets, the majestic Hudson River flowing lazily along. As I started down River Street, I heard the steady wallop of some kind of bar band launching into a smooth, shuffling beat. I saw four guys dressed in black. The lead singer was tearing into a lyric.
He was singing with an effortless authority that was stunning. Not overacting, just sure-footed, breezy, casual, totally mesmerizing. If you stopped to listen to his story, soon you would be spell-bound, helpless, like the crowd that had formed, like I was. His voice charted some kind of perfect middle ground between growling and groaning and gleeful holler. The whole band was devoid of any theatrics or costuming or hokum. The set they were playing was all original tunes, and yet somehow they were all immediately recognizable, mostly tales of love lost and won and the vast shades of gray in between. Most choruses ended with a single drawn out phrase which the other players joined in, harmonizing. I knew, deep down, this was a formula I was witnessing, but I couldn't help giving in to the sheer joyousness--the serious, journeyman's labor-- the bluesistic timelessness of it.
The core of the band is Art and lead guitarist Steve Lamb, pony-tailed wizard who bounced between three different guitars and five zillion presets on his pedal board, sculpting wickedly sizzling tones out of his Fender Deluxe amp, seemingly shifting them from moment to moment throughout a song. The two have been buddies since high school in Galway and in 2004 collaborated together on "Boogie With You," the song that gave them a foothold on the internet radio site Crumbs.net, the "official hub of the Capital District music scene." Drummer Tim Hurst is an intense, deliberate craftsman and a real artist with hurling his drumsticks into the air and catching them, mid-beat. "Everyone always talks about throwing the drumsticks," he complained to me, "what about the music? What about the fundamentals?" Aside from the rock-solid rhythm of his playing, he's got a great way of building the volume when leading into a dramatic section of a song, really churning the beat and whipping the group into a perfect frenzy. He also contributed a great song, "Smallville," about the tribulations of you guessed it, life in a rinky dink bar. The usual bass player, Hayden Sias, was out the night I saw them, replaced by the gregarious and witty John Durden.
Growing up, Art was exposed to a wealth of music: he lived in a musical aquarium, in a way. His father had a colossal record collection, everything from the Doors to Elvis to T Rex to Johnny Cash to the Beach Boys and everything in between. With a windfall check, his dad bought the finest sound system the local Radio Shack had to offer-- thousands of dollars put toward speakers, a turntable, a receiver, and most importantly, a reel to reel tape deck. It was always cued up, and when a song came on the radio he liked, he'd tape it, resulting in a huge, eclectic inventory of songs of the day. Instead of watching TV, Art recalls a lifestyle built around informal parties, gatherings with conversation and music in the background. On his thirteenth birthday he got a guitar-- an acoustic rather than the electric one he'd wanted, but he realized gradually the wisdom his parents had shown. "Anyone can play leads," he said, "but the discipline of doing it all with an acoustic meant I really learned music." He'd ride the bus to the old Saratoga Mall and spend afternoons at Hilton Music, soaking up instruction from the proprietor. The first band he saw live was Charlie Daniels in 1979 at SPAC, and the Allman Brothers opened for them.
Does he wake up some mornings, with riffs and song lyrics running through his head? "Sometimes," he laughed. "When I write a song, lots of times the words and the music don't match. It can take a long time to find words that fit the chord progression, or to find the right melody to fit the words." Alot of their songs are joint efforts, with one of the band members coming up with lyrics or riffs, and the others filling in the missing component. I wondered aloud how it was they seemed so relaxed performing-- this seemed to be their secret, they put their audience at ease, unlike many local bands where you can sense the anxiety and tension lurking barely below the surface. A relentless schedule of practicing and "drilling" parts until they become automatic was the answer. It might look spontaneous and free flowing, but actually the music is carefully, meticulously rehearsed and flawlessly executed, even the "jammy" numbers.
Someone interrupted our street corner interview. "They want to take pictures of you," referring to a storefront down the block, "bring your instruments."
"I'm not going to pose with a guitar," Art objected. "That's gay."
"Not so fast," I cautioned him, "'gay' is the new--"
"Straight!" John chimed in, completing my sentence. See what I mean? Totally unpretentious, down-to-earth guys.