Saturday afternoon, downtown Newburyport, a sweltering summer day. The air thick, oppressive. It’s a zoo. The streets lousy with tourists and vendors, the air thick with the greasy stink of fried dough. The day-long Riverfront Music Festival will begin in about an hour. Chris Plante, the keyboard player for the Brew, is hustling through Market Square, a tight, focused but weary expression on his face, obviously dragging ass. No, the Brew, the homegrown band Plante has been performing with for nearly a decade, a quartet that will be opening for rock legend Gregg Allman next month in Lowell, will not be playing the Port festival. Lucky for them. The boys were just hours past their last gig at the Spot Underground in Providence at 2 a.m. By the time their trusty tour bus, a Dodge Sprinter that sometimes doubles as wiffle ball field, as fans of Brew video blogs know, pulled into their driveway in Newburyuport, the sun was coming out, giving the band a couple of hours to decompress and grab a little shut-eye before dealing with the brutal, life-and-death struggle for a parking spot and a table at Joe's in this madness and, of course, dancing around questions from the local press about the band's next album. His brother, Brew bassist Joe Plante, who just stepped over the low fence into the dining area, is ready to help out. Bottom line? Yeah, it's been three years since "Back to the Woods" dropped and, yeah, they say, the band is about due for a new album and something is happening, something really big, in fact, "the most important thing we've ever done," says Chris Plante, but ... well, they can't talk about it right now. There will be an announcement by the end of the summer. Brother Joe backs him up. "It's the biggest thing to happen to us," he says. But, but ... "We just can’t talk about it." There's a tired grin on brother Chris' face. Tease! He admits it. "Yup." But says he doesn't enjoy it. "Seriously," he says. "We just can't say anything about it right now."
The band, which returns to the Firehouse this Saturday, evolved from the Blue Fungus Brew, an Amesbury High School-based jam band with a major bent toward psychedelia that had been started by guitarist Dave Drouin and drummer Kelly Kane in 2001. When they needed a bass player they turned to Joe Plante, an AHS classmate. Several months later, they added Christ Plante on keyboards. They dumped the name — and its obvious drug references — in 2002 and started calling themselves the Brew. They started recording right out of the box, pumping out two demos, "Tea Time" in 2003 and "Deja Brew" in 2004. It wasn't until 2006 that they started "getting serious about it," says Chris Plante. Which is to say, playing anywhere at anytime, doing whatever it takes to get noticed, after getting the rock idealism knocked out of them, learning that being solid musicians with a boatload of strong turns, don't mean a thing. "That’s not the way it goes," says Plante. "You have to have some business sense, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything — relationships, physical possessions, everything. Like blasting off on an insane one-off, like last week’s mad dash to Charlottesville, Virginia, for an in-studio show at WCNR-FM and, later, a club date with Scars on 45, the British six-piece that, ironically, would be taking the Waterfront Park stage in just a couple of hours. The Plantes would catch up with them later, after they enjoyed some down time at the beach. The Charlottesville date was 12 hours down, about six or seven hours there, grab a little sleep and 12 hours back. "Yeah, it’s crazy, but you can’t not do it," says Plante. It's also the reason the Sprinter has raced more than 84,000 miles in a single year.
The breakthrough came in 2006.They opened for Bruce Hornsby and were named Best Opening Act by Hornsby fans. They also won Relix Magazine's “Jam-off” poll, and released their first full-length album, "The Key." Two years later, they were back with "Back to the Woods," which was produced by Hornsby saxophonist Bobby Read. They've also released two live albums in their "Look Ma No Hands" series, one of which is a "Live at the Firehouse" from 2009, and a concert film called "Electric Opera," taken from a Portsmouth Music Hall performance last year. But this only begins to scratch the surface of their output. There are, in fact, 264 albums free for download at archive.org. Latest stats show a mind-boggling 1.3 million downloads. "The tapers are an important part of our success," says Plante. The point is getting the music out there, and shining a light on the band.
At first blush, "Back to the Woods" seems like a transitional album, with its emphasis on songs — shorter, more radio-ready, not like the "old days, when they would be doing covers of, say, "Echoes," a 30-minute Pink Floyd opus. It's not an entirely accurate representation. Just look back to "About to Rain" from "Tea Time" and you'll see that the band, however proggy its rep, has been down with pop tunes for a while. It's a tough sound to nail down, something like classic rock meets progressive jazz by way of reggae and orchestral pop —sometimes in the course of a single song. "We try to mix it up," says Joe Plante. "We're trying to get more across with less." But that doesn't mean that the band doesn't tear it up on stage. Last week's Amesbury Days show, which found its way onto archive.org just two days after the show, found the band kicking out a monster long-form cover of Zep's epic "Kashmir," a regular part of their set, and, a rock rarity, an extended guitar/penny whistle smackdown between Drouin and special guest Seth Campbell. Or, in Newport, having them stretch out with a 12-minute opening jam for "Faces," a tune from "The Key" album. "We don’t ignore our past," says Chris Plante. Actually, you never quite know what the Brew is going to throw at you. They have over 200 tunes ready to go at any point. Their last show at the Firehouse, captured on "Look Ma No Hands" series, included "I'm So Lonesome," a country staple. They even have the audacity to cover the iconic Doors tune "The End." Even the tightly focused tunes on "Back to the Woods" leave signposts of where the songs would take off in live shows.
What they play at the Firehouse show is anybody's guess. The Brew's not giving anything away — about this show, possible new albums, anything — insisting that they've never played a show with a set list. "We try to be spontaneous," says Joe Plante. "We try to pick up on the mood of the audience,and go from there." But the most important thing to know about Brew shows at the Firehouse is that the last three have been sellouts.
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Brew will perform at 8 p.m. July 23 at the Firehouse Center as part of the Market Square venue’s 10-for-20 concert series. Tickets are $16. For more information about the performance, call 978.462.7336 or check out the Firehouse web. For more information about the band, check out the Brew’s web.