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The Be Good Tanyas show their roots

By Dan MacIntosh, March 2003

The Be Good Tanyas have titled their latest album "Chinatown," but don't expect to hear a collection of songs about Los Angeles' evil underbelly or characters such as the ones Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway played in that classic Roman Polanski film. It's not about that Chinatown. It's named after the group's adopted community, instead.

"We live in an area that's historically a Chinese neighborhood, but now it has all kinds of different people living here," explains Trish Klein, who plays guitar and banjo, and sings in this all-female trio. "It has some of the cheapest rents in Vancouver, Canada, but it's also a very nice community. It's a very historical community. It's very diverse ethnically. There's still a big Chinese community, but there are also a lot of artists. There are a lot of gardens and parks in the neighborhood, and people take their dogs for walks. It's beautiful."

In other words, this doesn't describe the set of a crime drama.

The album, their second, is a mixture of old blues songs ("In My Time Of Dying"), older folk songs (Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around To Die") in addition to original compositions. It's an eclectic mix, for sure, but "Chinatown" is not some kind of concept album about their hometown.

"We called it that for sentimental reasons," Klein states. "It's a big area where we happened to migrate to when we moved to Vancouver. We ended living in the same area, and we all ended up jamming and collaborating, and it was kind of the focus of this whole music scene that was going on when we were first getting together as a band."

The Be Good Tanyas have been labeled a sort of country group, but it is more accurate to call them a traditional music band, instead. You might say they sound a little like Cowboy Junkies-meet-Dixie Chicks.

"I don't think we're any one thing or any other thing," Klein says. "We're a little bit of a lot of things. I wouldn't say we're a country band. If people want to call us that, it's up to them. I just think we're a little bit of many different styles. I don't think the new album is really very country at all. I think the first album ("Blue Horse") was maybe more in that direction, but this album doesn't have that much of a country influence in it."

If anything, it's closer to older country - at least thematically speaking - due to all the death in its songs.

"It really seems to be the theme," Klein admits. "I thought about that when we were recording the album. I was like, 'Oh my God. People are going to think we're downright morbid.' But there is kind of a death theme."

But Klein, who talks at a rapid pace and is quick to laugh and joke, doesn't come off as one who is particularly morbid. So it must have more to do with the material they've chosen to record, than anything else.

Frazey Ford, who along with Samantha Parton rounds out this trio, was raised on harmonizing with her mom to Emmylou Harris songs and is probably the most country-centric one in the group. Klein may love old school country artists like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, but she's much more enthusiastic about the blues and blues singers.

"I like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Otis Rush, Mississippi John Hurt, Taj Mahal, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. And Bessie Smith, definitely. We always do a lot of that old stuff. But we also do Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson, but that's more like gospel."

There is one problem with loving old American songs the way the Tanyas do, however: It gets harder and harder all the time to bring new life to these old standards. This may be why they approached recording "House Of The Rising Sun" with more than a little hesitation.

"We almost didn't put it on the album, because we thought, 'Damn, this is sure a tired old trad that everyone's done. Maybe we shouldn't bother; maybe we should just leave it as a B-side or something. But Frazey came up with an alternate melody. So we did the harmonies while the drums did this sort of rock feel. So it's sort of like it's kind of rocked out a little, but all the while it's kind of country-ish. Frazey really did dig deep on that song. She was pulling out her soul chops."

As proud as they are over this recording, in their minds it can't hold a candle to one particular past live performance of it.

"The best performance of that song was also one of the first times we ever played it live," Klein recalls. "We have a recording of it. Frazey sounds like Aretha Franklin on that recording. I don't think she's ever sung so powerfully before, nor will she ever again. When we listened to it, we were like, 'Oh my God.' We had a drummer in the band who is now in this rock band called Speed To Kill. He was like this really heavy drummer who sounded like John Bonham. We were all playing like freaks."

"There was just this crazy bar scene that night. I remember there was a brawl that broke out at the side of the stage at one point, and some guy had to be chucked out into the alley. The room was way over capacity. Maybe it was the air that caused the rocking to occur."

Such a scene contrasts markedly with a typical Tanyas show.

"Usually when we play shows it's like these mellow theaters where everybody just sits and gawks at us," Klein says, with more than a little disappointment in her voice. "But this time, everybody just crammed together and everybody was being rowdy. We had to play loud just to compete with the volume in the room."