By Steve Houk
So it’s the early 80’s, and a couple of aspiring teenage musicians stumble upon Max Weinberg — Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band drummer — in a local cafe after a Springsteen show in their hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They hand Mighty Max a copy of their demo tape they happened to have on ’em, pretty sure that it may not even get one listen, but hey, this is how you get your music out there when you’re trying to make it big.
Fast forward about 10 or so years to 1996, and those same two young musicians — Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas — have made it big, churning along in one of roots rock’s most respected bands, the BoDeans. They’re in the studio recording their sixth record Blend, and have the late E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici on hand to play some accordion. In a break in recording, Neumann relates the old story to Federici of handing off their demo to Max way back when, and gets a very unexpected and thrilling response.
“(Danny) was just talking and we told him that story,” Neumann recalls, “and he goes, ‘Oh, are you kidding? That tape was played so much on our tour buses that it fell apart in the machine.’ And we’re just like, are you kidding? We had never heard anything like that before! It was really a great story to hear from him.”
And it wasn’t just Bruce and his E Street Band and crew that adored the BoDeans back then, it was other legendary musicians like The Band’s Robbie Robertson (the BoDeans appeared on his debut solo record) plus a loyal and robust fanbase that helped propel the band to success, along with Neumann and Llanas’ superb musicianship and songwriting that fit right into the burgeoning Americana music scene. Thirty two years after their first record, Llanas is no longer in the band but Neumann sure is, and the BoDeans are still rocking and rolling along, touring often, playing top clubs everywhere, and just released their 13th record aptly named Thirteen last year. So why the staying power for this band, when so many others fall by the wayside?
“One word I’d say is simplicity,” Neumann said on a brief break before the BoDeans resumed their current our which stops at the Birchmere on May 17th. “We weren’t like virtuoso musicians or anything like that, so when we went into a studio it was simple writing and the best melodies you could play at the time. But I think when you do that, it makes stuff kind of universal, and makes it appeal to everybody because everybody can sing it, everybody can play it. It invites you in instead of something that’s very complex and it’s hard to understand, you know?”
Llanas and Neumann were tied together from the start, they met in high school and sowed their oats together for many years to make the BoDeans a viable and successful band. After Llanas left in 2011, alot of bands may have folded given the loss of one of its founders. But Neumann was already the driving force of the band, so he was able to pick up and run and keep the band moving forward even without his longtime partner.
“Before I ever met Sam or anyone like that, I was playing in lots of high school bands,” Neumann said. “Sam never had that kind of background, he never played music in high school and stuff. So I kind of came from that perspective, and throughout the years, I would kind of put our records together. Sam would have ideas for songs, but I always would kind of construct them and put them together. So when he did depart, I didn’t have any choice but to just keep playing and keep going, and go to the next town and play, and go to the next town and play, and that’s what I’ve just kept doing. And the fans kept showing up and singing along and so it’s just a natural progression, I guess.”
Over the years, Neumann has both produced his own BoDeans records as well as had big guns like former Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ first mate Mike Campbell and the legendary T-Bone Burnett in the producer chair. Like many, he feels that having an added outside eye is always a good thing for a record, it can point out things you might not see if you’re producing the record yourself.
“If you can find someone like a T-Bone to bring in, it’s always great because you really need that other perspective. The way T-Bone said it to me one time made a lot of sense, he goes, ‘When you’re just doing your own stuff like that, things kind of sound mono because it’s all this one perspective.’ I think great records have more perspective than that, you know?”
Neumann is currently also the primary music contributor to the Netflix program The Ranch, giving him another outlet for his widespread musical creativity. Seems one of the show’s principals was a big Bodeans fan, and from a chance meeting with one of Neumann’s band members came a wonderful and unique opportunity.
“Our keyboard player was on a plane and met someone who knew that one of the producers on the show was a big fan of the BoDeans, because he came out of the Chicago area. They passed the producer’s information to me and said I should call them. So I call them and the guy’s like, ‘Oh my god, yeah, I want you to do some stuff.’ I’m like, what? Like what stuff? And he goes, ‘As much as you possibly can. Just keep writing and sending it.’ So that’s what I did, and we just worked up a real good relationship between each other where I help him out and he’s helping me out and it just works real well together.”
And from that experience writing for The Ranch came the inspiration and material for the band’s most recent album Thirteen. “You build up so much stuff that you start to think, well, I’m sure BoDeans fans would love to hear some of these songs. That’s how Thirteen kind of came about. I thought, I’ll put together a bunch of stuff on a record and get it out there for them so that it’s not just, you know it’s only in The Ranch. This way people can have it for themselves.”
Above all, Neumann seems legitimately thrilled to still be out there playing the music he loves, working hard for over three decades to create a legacy that is still going strong.
“To be able to still be playing 30 years later and, you know, have people show up and be excited to sing with you. I think it’s a gift, that’s how I see it. I consider myself a lucky man to be out there still playing.”
The BoDeans with special guest Trapper Schoepp perform Thursday May 17th at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here.