The opening track of the Gamblin’ Christmas album “Alaska” earned its way onto my list of favorite discoveries of last year – “Blue Lights” a piece of Americana that is anthemic, in the way James McMurtry or Joe Ely can drawl and then fire a song into your consciousness.
Make no mistake, the magic possessed by Patrick Flaherty and Kurt Franke – the duo that are Gamblin’ Christmas – is in their harmonies; Cutting, beautiful, unique moments that blend Flaherty’s throaty Texas-influenced foghorn with Franke’s upper-register and distant siren. The two are a little more than a year into a musical reconnection that followed each getting married, the addition of two kids for Patrick and a year-long stint for Kurt in Austin, Texas. But it makes sense for them to be play music together, if for no better reason better than damn good harmonies.
Ball State grads, both now living in Indianapolis, are about to commence work on a follow-up to the 2007 release “Alaska”, a minimalist-yet-powerful effort, showcasing their voices above Patrick’s strident acoustic guitar playing and Kurt’s nimble bass guitar.
“We have seven or eight new songs that haven’t been played live or recorded, and another 12 or 13 that we do play that also aren’t recorded,” Flaherty revealed. “We are going to get ready to record another album and have been playing the songs out live. The energy is there.”
Kurt, who has a degree in Music Engineering, adds they are looking for something even more organic this time.
“Interlochen (in Michigan, where they recorded “Alaska”) was amazing, but I want to capture the sound of us in a room where we are very comfortable, rather than a studio,” said Franke. “Its really a struggle balancing a folk approach to performance with classical training in theory and recording, but it is exactly that which keeps me interested”.
The folk approach stems from a mammoth multi-record album of songs they both listened to while in college.
“We both sort of started to take an interest into the ‘Harry Smith Folk Anthology’,” Flaherty said. “It is a collection made in the 1950’s, by someone going all over the country, with a really basic recorder, catching people singing, before they died. Really hardcore folk.”
“When you first listen to the album, it is sort of disorienting, because it is so raw. That kind of music resonated with us.”
It led to playing some Muncie gigs and open mic nights. Sharing a house after college, beginning in 2004, their combined skills and musical strengths began to blossom.
“We were renting a house on Central Avenue and lived together for a year and a half,” Flaherty says. “That it was a time that was amazingly productive, “ Flaherty remembers. “We’d practice and record.”
Eventually, Flaherty got married and moved out, and Kurt and his fiancé (now wife) moved to Austin in late 2006, bringing and hiatus to their partnership.
“My wife and I were expecting a child and we didn’t really want to leave the safety net of family,” Flaherty said. “The plan was for all of us to go down there, and not necessarily relocate. Just to see Austin. It was sort of this mecca. Townes Van Zandt lore. Then when he came back last year, we picked back up again.”
And picking back up meant relearning old songs, writing new songs, and finding that vocal harmonies were still intact.
“I think when the Silver Dollar Family Band (a former four-piece band were both in) was whittled down to Gamblin’ Christmas, we started to realize that our voices sounded really good together.” Franke said. “It has taken a long time to develop the harmonies though, and it was about the time we recorded “Alaska” that it finally all sort of fell into place.
“I think we are worlds beyond that in terms of singing, plus Pat has started to sing harmonies on my songs, which is a huge addition to the sound.”
Steadfast in pushing their own writing and music, their live performance at a recent Sunday night at Melody Inn appearance still mixed in a couple public domain-type covers and one Simon and Garfunkel song (the brilliantly chosen “Duncan”). At that show,. Flaherty, pounding the chords out on his acoustic guitar, frequently grounded his feet twice shoulder-width apart, and bounced his back foot as he sang, sounding equal parts McMurtry, Robert Earl Keen with a bit of Gordon Lightfoot. Kurt leaned in and nudged the songs to a higher place with his high and lonesome harmonies.
“We want to have that vocal chemistry,” Patrick says “The new songs are more mature. More than just relationship gone wrong. More about life. More complicated, with more layers.
“But it’s like the guy who asked Neil Young if he had written the same song at least a 1,000 times. Well, maybe,” Flaherty says. “It’s not like there are a whole new system of rules.”
“I feel like every new song we write keeps getting better and better,” Franke says. “Knowing that the longer we stick with it, the more fun it is, the better it sounds, and hopefully people will feel as strongly about it as we do.”