The group wraps up PW’s Concerts in the Park this week.
Dense wilderness, just a short drive from Philadelphia, marks the highest point in the middle of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. On a clear spring morning, from a narrow passage stamped into the underbrush, you can just make out the Philly skyline in the distance. Turn around, and you’ll see a haze of gray jutting up from the opposite horizon: Atlantic City. Visible specks of civilization. In between—endless miles of knotty pine, a dense canopy of green growing from the sandy soil. Little else is visible. None of the Wawas or $30 hotels on Route 70. Not even the winding road that leads to an impromptu parking space in a shaded patch of sandy dirt. It’s all obscured by pines.
Bob Malloy trudges up the Batona Trail. He’s a frequent visitor to the Pine Barrens, but he’s never been to this particular point before.
He’s toting a portable music player and a pen. He has come to create, free from the noise of the city.
“When the neighbors are screaming and the dogs are barking, I can’t fucking think,” he says. “Songwriting, to me, is similar to mining. You’re in the dark, you can’t see very well, you stumble across stuff. You don’t really know where these songs are coming from. You don’t know what they mean.”
Malloy’s band, the Strapping Fieldhands, are no strangers to the Pine Barrens. Malloy, guitarist Jacy Webster and bassist Bob Dickie have spent countless afternoons at the Green Bank Inn savoring crab cake sandwiches and frosty pints. The photo on the back of their second record was taken in a cornfield near Chatsworth. They titled a song and a record “In The Pineys” and swiped the cover art from a booklet about the Jersey Devil. Inspired by the rural, primal spirit of unpolished music, Malloy says, he’s looking to tap into “that stuff that gives you a shudder up your spine when a hillbilly hits a certain note.”
From some cruddy homemade cassette tapes and jam sessions in a South Philly row home, the Strapping Fieldhands grew into a rollicking, free-wheeling local favorite in the early 1990s, landing choice opening slots at the Khyber and going into heavy rotation on WKDU. Too off-kilter and eclectic to be labeled a simple rock band yet too exuberant to be categorized as “art music,” they defy categorization. They play drunken lullabies through distorted electric guitars, often with delicate melodies and pop hooks but without any of the preciousness and pretension of the singer-songwriter set. Years before lo-fi became a stale genre-ghetto, the Fieldhands were haphazardly making excited, blown-out records at home. Strange music flows from them naturally—the result of pairing a self-taught Syd Barrett devotee and a couple of Captain Beefheart fans with as many as two hard-hitting drummers.
Musically, they’re as singular a presence on the Philly rock scene as Malloy is hiking through the pines, a lone figure in the wilderness.
Spin magazine declared 1994’s Discus one of the best records you’ve never heard. Guided By Voices and the Grifters took the Fieldhands through a tour of the South. Pavement brought them through the Midwest. For a while, none other than Rick Rubin was dragging Malloy through Manhattan in a limousine, trying to lure the Fieldhands to the alternative rock wing of his American Recordings empire.
More than 20 years after their debut, the Fieldhands are back at it, playing a few times a year and writing new material. They’ve gone through two periods of dormancy along the way, but Bob Malloy, Jacy Webster, Bob Dickie and Jeff Werner have figured out that if they’re going to make any music at all, they need to do it as the Strapping Fieldhands. The comeback started in late 2009 with a set at the Kraak Festival in Brussels; it continued through 2010 with shows in Philly and New York leading up to a Southern tour. And the Fieldhands aren’t just dragging themselves onstage to run through a greatest-hits set from their back catalog—they’ve spent the last year in a basement studio preparing an album, tentatively titled Alluvium Trinkets. And they’ve got another one in the pipeline.
Nobody’s calling it a reunion.
It’s a summer evening, and the Strapping Fieldhands are in guitarist Webster’s South Philly basement studio rehearsing for an upcoming show. Busy working on the new record, they haven’t had a live set to practice for in almost a year.
Going through “Trip to an Ashram,” they sound rusty at first, searching for the proper feel and the right notes. Werner is behind the drums, where he sits with a straight back and a stiff jaw between songs. Dickie plucks and bows an upright bass, replacing his Fender P-bass with a relic from his jazz days.
Everyone’s eyes are locked on his own instrument—except for Tony Jeeter on fiddle, an old friend of Malloy’s and a brand new addition to the musical mix. The two have worked side by side as carpenter and house painter over the years; Malloy gave Jeeter his first fiddle more than a decade ago. Seated directly in front of two guitar amps, Jeeter’s pack of smokes nearly falls from his pocket-t while he bends in close to watch Malloy’s fingers grip the neck of his guitar. He’s never played with the Fieldhands, never even heard the new songs. Filling in the expansive instrumental breaks with spirited bowing, he’s keeping pace with a combination of good humor and befuddlement, his face evincing a What the hell was that? after the song takes an unexpected turn.
The tune ends, and Malloy passes out a few cans of beer. Asked if he’s watching Malloy for cues, Jeeter admits only to playing along by ear. Besides, Malloy notes, his big hands obscure the fretboard. “It’s like watching a pack of sausages,” agrees Webster.
“It was even worse back when I was framing houses,” says Malloy, holding up his hands like claws and cringing as a demonstration.
Searching for another song to play, Malloy shuffles through a mess of wrinkled papers. He stops on an old one, “Tickled With Olive Branch.” Starting off with a melodic nod to “Spirit in the Sky,” it’s a particularly raucous and spirited number, punctuated by throbbing bass line that moves the whole thing along like an electric Oompah band. In a mock British accent, Malloy sings out: “I’m going down there, I’m going down there, I’m going down the-ere-ere.”
The chorus hits: big triumphant chords, clanging cymbals. Malloy throws his weight back in the chair and lifts the guitar from his knee before leaning back into the mic and muttering the chorus as an antidote to the breezy, sweet verse. The pipes shake, knocking down an evening’s worth of butts from an ashtray and a few full beer cans.
It’s not the first time the Fieldhands have pumped fresh blood into the racket. Bruce Russell of the Dead C played a nine-string guitar on the debut single. Sky Kishlo was originally invited to play as an accordion player. Friend and self-described “chauffeur to the Fieldhands” Rich Fravel played a bizarre instrument called a guitorgan on the trip with Pavement. Current drummer Jeff Werner began his tenure as a stand-up percussionist before ultimately replacing Kishlo behind the kit.
So—will Jeeter grow to become a full-fledged Fieldhand? “Definitely,” Malloy says. “He passed the audition.”