In addition to having arguably one of the cooler band names in all of Smugtown, The Mighty High and Dry is the sum of some impressive parts. Members of this elite ensemble have flexed in the wall-o-brash brass that was The Po' Boys Brass Band and the funky-as-it-gets boogie of Street Level. Compared to those two powerhouses, The Mighty High & Dry — Alan Murphy, vocals, guitar, keyboards; Chris Teal, drums; Kyle Vock, bass; and Mike Frederick, guitar — is a much more controlled outfit full of soulful nuance and hooks.
Founder and frontman Murphy was looking forward by looking back — and beyond the spine-bending groove of Street Level. According to Murphy, Street Level was primarily a studio project that he built a band around.
"Running a band with horns is hard," he says. Street Level lasted a couple of years before Murphy found another itch to scratch. At the same time, he was teaching music in the Rochester city school district and getting his master's degree. Still, what would soon be known as The Mighty High and Dry was calling.
"I wanted to do something a little more rootsy," Murphy says. "I liked the idea of the upright bass, the sound of it, and I started to think of ways to build tunes around it to some degree."
"It was sort of an accidental band in some ways," Murphy says. "I met Kyle [Vock] on a jazz gig we were doing together. I was playing keyboards and piano at the time."
Big Apple trombonist extraordinaire Nick Finzer, another Po' Boys alum, introduced Murphy to Chris Teal, and to Mike Frederick. The troops were assembled but a mission was yet to be chosen.
The sound was still going to be funky to a certain extent, but Murphy was down for whatever. "It was open," he says.
"Yeah, but it's since developed," Chris Teal adds. "We had the conversation how we were going to present ourselves because we came from a lot of different musical backgrounds. So we sat down and said, 'What is The Mighty High and Dry?'"
Murphy knew the approach he wanted...and what he didn't want. "I didn't want to be recording stuff at home," he says. "I wanted to record in a studio."
Murphy and the High and Dry crew plugged GFI Music's Tony Gross into the pre-production and production equation. What emerged is the band's eponymous CD, and a beautiful blast of fresh, soulful, rootsy air. In a genre that tends to get heavy and overwrought (Wilco comes to mind, so does Ryan Adams), The Mighty High and Dry's material still has wings. And though it doesn't employ the bombast and sonic geometry of its members' previous outings, it still packs a quite a wallop.
Perhaps it's the seasoned work ethic brought by each musician. They've been conveying and expressing the unconveyable and the unexpressable for years. It's an unwritten language of shrugs and glances and sleight of hand. Teal thinks they've figured it out.
"Alan has a large amount of material he brings in along with the concept," he says. "And because he plays bass and drums, he's able to describe or refer to what he wants."
"I'm really excited for the future of this," says Murphy. "It was a process learning each other at first, getting tempos right, describing feels. I was purposely being more hands-off than I'd been in previous projects."
As for whether that was difficult for him, "Yes and no," Murphy says. "It was a process for me to say, 'OK this isn't what I want, but it sounds good. Let's keep moving.' I did try to not play busy, especially on keyboards. I was influenced by The Heartbreakers, the way they put together their stuff so well. So I was really conscious of letting spaces be open whenever possible."
"Things definitely move more quickly now," Teal says. "Initially we were doing stuff that was really groove-oriented music and fairly simple, and we were also working on material to accompany poetry that Alan had written that was more like a free-jazz thing. So that was automatically pretty interesting."
With the CD put to bed and dreaming of its summertime release, the band is already onto the next one — one that Murphy hopes goes a little quicker in the studio. The band wants to spend its time on stage twisting for the masses.
"I want to see people sweating and dancing," Murphy says.