At a pub in Seattle, the band on stage launches into the churchy opening riff of “Take Me To The River.”
The popular cultural expressions of beer and music, rooted in the ribald drinking songs of continental Europe and the British Isles, have certainly been turned up several notches in the New World.
The rendition is more Talking Heads than Al Green. And people in the crowd nod and cheer as they begin to recognize the tune and lock into the rhythms being conjured by bassist Craig Hartinger and lead guitarist Dave Alexander. Then, suddenly, the silver-haired singer, Tom Dalldorf, strums his Telecaster and twists the song in a completely different direction.
“Don’t know why, I love beer like I do/Order one, I wind up with two/Love the lagers, long as they’re true/Needing a beer, what I’m going through/Take me to the Brewpub/Rock me in the mash tun.”
Another comic moment from the man who has become known as the Weird Al of the beer world, doing his beer-parody covers such as “Homebrew Hand Jive” and “Hop This Town.” Dalldorf is editor/publisher of The Celebrator Beer News. And the Rolling Boil Blues Band, which he founded in 1994, has become a fixture around beer events like the Craft Brewers Convention and the Great American Beer Festival.
Other than Dalldorf-the-lyricist, Rolling Boil has no permanent members. But there’s never a shortage of talent when it comes to volunteers for the band’s gigs. And the revolving cast of players are all in the beer business. Hartinger, for example, is marketing manager for Seattle-based specialty beer Importer Merchant du Vin, and Alexander is managing partner at the famed Brickskeller beer bar in Washington, D.C.
Dalldorf, who got started in a late-’50s rock-and-roll group, the Exotics, says his band is just one reflection of the surprising number of craft brewers who have some sort of music connection.
“There are an awful lot of brewers who are into music,” Dalldorf says, “I don’t think you can go into any brewery in America and not hear loud rock and roll or reggae or something coming out of the brewhouse. That’s the background music of brewing.”
Of course, verses about beer have been around since at least 1800 BC, when some swingin’ Sumerian beer geek penned “Hymn to Ninkasi,” singing the praises of the ancient goddess of brewing. And religious historian Mircea Eliade writes of “animating the drum”—a sacred ceremony wherein a shaman would sprinkle beer on the shell and skin of his ritual instrument in order to bring it to life so it could tell stories.
But the popular cultural expressions of beer and music, rooted in the ribald drinking songs of continental Europe and the British Isles, have certainly been turned up several notches in the New World, where country and blues had a baby and called it rock and roll. And just as tame lagers and ales aren’t where it’s at for most American craft brewers anymore, the “Beer Barrel Polka” is a nostalgia trip.
Hip to the Hops
“I have always loved music,” Dogfish Head brewer/president Sam Calagione declares in his book Brewing Up A Business. “I remember waving my magic Wiffle ball bat and chanting hexes at my parents’ radio in an effort to get it to spit forth Laura Branigan’s ‘Gloria.’ “
Delaware’s Dogfish Head is known for it’s over-the-top beers—big on IBUs and ABV. And Calagione is equally well known for his outsized promotion of those brews. So it’s wasn’t exactly surprising when a few years back he formed a wild and crazy hip-hop duo, the Pain Relievaz, with Dogfish Head lead brewer Bryan Selders. Donning phat gear and heavy bling bling, Calagione becomes Funkmaster I.B.U. and Selders MC Lil Guy.
“We bill ourselves as ‘Probably the finest beer geek, hip-hop band of our generation,’ “ Calagione says. “Of course, we are definitely the only beer geek, hip hop band of our generation.”
The Pain Relievaz have managed to drop two discs so far—”Check Your Gravity” and “Untether The Blimp”—with such beery joke jams as “I Got Busy with an A-B Salesgirl,” “Brewers Bling Bling” and “Lookin’ For Flavor.” And they have a hilarious music-video for “Pinchin’ Pennies” that features a wild-eyed goat and a Dogfish Head delivery truck that “hops” up and down, low rider-style.
Mimicking the sort of boasts and bad blood that real rappers revel in, Calagione and Selders take delight in taunting both mainstream breweries, and rival West Coast brewers, who they call out on several tracks.
“We heard that Ben Love from Pelican has been fronting about a West Coast brewers response album,” jives Calagione in the guise of the Funkmaster. “Possibly to our song ‘Posers’—which tells how the West Coast brewers only think they make the county’s best hoppy beers.”
Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill, NC, has two brewing brothers, Jon and Pete Connolly, who not only mash in together at the brewpub but trade guitar licks and share songwriting credits in their beer-referenced band, the Imperial Pints.
Best known as home of the University of North Carolina, in recent years Chapel Hill has gained a reputation as a hip little music town, with the indie label Merge Records and the bands Superchunk, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Archers of Loaf, Southern Culture on the Skids and Ben Folds Five.
Laid-back Carolina Brewery and the hard rockin’ Connolly boys fit well with that scene. The inside cover of their CD “Fizzyology” (produced by Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge) pictures the brothers and their two bandmates gathered around a table at the pub, sharing pints and looking a lot like a British invasion-era foursome.
“We started out playing blues,” Jon says. “That’s right,” chimes in Pete, “But then we started listening to the Stones and the Faces.”
Those influences are evident in the cowbell-driven “Climbing Up The Walls” and the crunchy “Crush And Run,” which opens to the sound of a beer being popped and poured into a glass, while “Honey For Sale” has a hook-heavy, Southern sound that recalls the Georgia Satellites.
Jon, who has been brewing since 1994 and at Carolina since 1995, has a degree in mechanical engineering. He allows that making music is more like brewing than you might expect.
“For me, it has a lot of the same qualities,” he says, ”which is that it’s very scientific, but it’s also an art form that gives you freedom to express yourself in different ways. Drinking beer and listening to music has never done me wrong. If you look throughout history, beer and music have always been linked together, through celebrations and music in bars and taverns. Drinking songs are good.”
Publicist and self-described “idea man” Marty Jones has dubbed himself the “lead singer” at Oskar Blues Grill and Brew in Lyons, CO. Rolling Stone called the off-the beaten-path brew pub the hottest place to be in Colorado on a Saturday night. And with his twangin’ band, the Pork Boilin’ Poor Boys (“America’s Kings of Barn Rock & Drunkytonk”) Jones has probably sung as many beer-soaked songs as anyone around.
Music and beer are woven into the business and countrified culture of Oskar Blues, which got on the map with its canned craft beers. The pub’s basement music venue regularly features local and touring roots and blues musicians. And the brewery’s “Singing 12-Pack” CD samplers have featured music from the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band, the Supersuckers and Todd Snider.
Jones, who sometimes blows harmonica in Rolling Boil, usually fronts the Poor Boys on washtub bass. His songs are built around the shuffling beats of Johnny Cash and are written in the grand style of serious novelty tunesmiths like Roger Miller and Buck Owens. Songs such as “I Got Over You (When You Got Under Him),” “Match Made in Milwaukee” and “Drinkin’ in Every Bar in Town” celebrate classic country themes—drinking, cheating, heartaches, honky-tonks—and beer sure enough figures in that mix.
“Beer and music are certainly two of life’s greatest pleasures,” Jones says. ”The two pleasures you can enjoy together. What’s better than listening to live music while enjoying a great beer? Music changes your thinking, it elevates your soul and your spirit. It makes you think about better and deeper things—and beer does the exact same thing.”
Jones thinks the reason so many musicians wind up in the in the beer business is because it’s a job that holds some similar meaning for them.
“Music made me a more satisfied human being,” Jones says, “And became something where, if I wasn’t doing it, I wasn’t as happy as I could be. And then I discovered great beer and realized that the beer that most people drank—like the music that most people listened to —was not the best of those two worlds. The beer I like is made in small batches, lovingly crafted by people who couldn’t give a damn about the mainstream. I think that’s why there are so many people who are into both good beer and good music—it makes people happy.”
Mike Freeman manages the brewhouse at Flying Dog in Denver and sings and plays bass in punk band Gina Go Faster. Flying Dog built a irreverent reputation through its association with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and wild-style label art drawn by Ralph Steadman. It is any wonder then that a beer punk would be put in charge of operations there?
“It’s three chords and the truth,” Freeman says of his band’s stripped-down, ecstatic style. “We’ve evolved a little beyond that, maybe, but we still have a formula we stick with—three minute songs and screaming vocals.”
Flying Dog beers and Freeman’s music are intertwined in the 32-track, digital recording studio that’s attached to the brewery. He named it “The Hive,” and Freeman also runs a small indie label, King Bee Records, out of the space. The band and the brewery often informally help promote one another.
Gina Go Faster (fittingly named for a pet dog) sometimes rolls out on tour with Freeman driving the brightly painted Flying Dog Winnebago, traveling as far as Chicago and the West Coast.
“Basically, we go out and preach the word of Flying Dog, as well as rock and roll,” says Freeman. “We tour markets that Flying Dog is in. We usually play bars and draw a couple hundred people, and our fans run them out of beer by the end of the night.”
Doggie Style is Freeman’s road brew of choice. But the econo ways of punk mean that the good stuff must sometimes be sacrificed so the band can make it to the next gig.
“We’ve traded beer all across America for places to crash and all sorts of other things,” Freeman says. “We’ve learned to always hit the road with plenty of brew in the tank.”