Outlaw Social

by Tony Montague

Outlaw Social was conceived one evening three years ago at the Lucky Bar in Victoria, when Oliver Swain was made an offer he couldn't refuse by two young women with music in their mouths and good times on their minds.

The bassist and singer - a founder member of the Bills (formerly the Bill Hilly Band) - had been out of town for some years. After playing with Scrüj MacDuhk in Winnipeg, and then - when the band split - recording with Ruth Moody and Jeremy Penner, he'd wandered off south in a van, bound for the Appalachian hills and the bayous of Cajun country, following his muse. For eight months he played bass with his friends the Red Stick Ramblers, from Louisiana. But he wanted to do more singing. Now he was home, seeking new inspirations.

As he stood at the bar, Oliver became aware of two pairs of eyes glued on him. Pharis Patenaude and Catherine Black, whom he recalled as music fans from his Bill Hilly days, were staring with disbelief. The girls, who performed together as old-time roots duo Horsefly, had just that evening been talking about Oliver - how they hadn't seen hide nor hair of him in ages, and wouldn't it be great if they could somehow find him and propose forming a trio.

And there he was, at the Lucky, glass in hand. The coincidence was too much. Banjo-toting Catherine and guitar-wielding Pharis temporarily lost the power of speech.

We were just standing there against a brickwall, says Pharis, I remember it really well, because it's quite possibly one of the oddest perfect moments in life.

I thought to myself: Whatever it is, this can't be a bad thing, Oliver remembers. This is going to go well, no matter what.

The two multi-instrumentalist women played a mix of old-time and bluegrass-hued country roots music, some of it traditional, along with Pharis' original songs in a similar vein. Their tastes meshed and they worked fine together, but after a couple of years they both felt the need to expand the band and explore new musical dimensions.

So the girls made their request, and the gallant Oliver complied. Horsefly - named after Pharis' hometown in B.C's Cariboo region - had a gig in a week's time, and he was only too glad to anchor and broaden its sound.

That was in the fall of 2004, says Pharis. Our next real gig was in March of 2005, when we played to 1,000 people in one of Victoria's finest theatres.

After that, things started happening fast for Outlaw Social, as the three musicians now styled themselves. They soon started work on a demo, which turned into an EP project, and resulted in the trio morphing into a quintet.

Ace electric and acoustic guitarist Adam Dobres, an old musical partner of Oliver's, was brought in for a few songs. And Kendel Carson of Vancouver's Paperboys added some hot fiddling with a Celtic colour. The five musicians made such a good fit, musically and socially, that they stayed together and have become one of the most exciting roots-based bands to emerge on the West Coast scene in recent years.

That EP took us five months to do, because bringing in two new members made things grow and change a lot, Oliver recalls.

The seven-song recording garnered huge critical acclaim out West for its impeccable musicianship and soulful sound. The gigs rolled in and the band got booked to play major festivals in B.C. and Washington State. In March of this year Outlaw Social went into the studio to make its debut Dry Bones.

There are a lot of different influences, some very traditional sounds, stringband music, and there's also a lot that's contemporary in Pharis' writing and Adam's guitar-playing, says Oliver. The album allowed us to explore all our sources of inspiration, draw them together better, and deepen the diversity.

Everything was recorded live, together, with beautiful vintage mikes, Pharis chips in. We have to be able to play together to be able to capture the right sound. There were moments in the studio when our jaws would all drop and we'd go 'That's it - right there!'

Dry Bones opens with When He's Gone an original song by Pharis that has an old jugband feel and features the angelically-tight voices of Pharis (its writer), Catherine, and Oliver. Kendel's swinging fiddle leads on the next cut, the jaunty Raven by Martha Scanlan. There are three traditional pieces, including the eerily gorgeous title-song, with Oliver's remarkable, wide-ranging voice.

It's not all old-time. Bob Dylan's obscure but wonderful Odds and Ends (from the Basement Tapes) gets a shit-kicking treatment featuring Dobres' twangy guitar and is performed with a touch of swagger that brings to mind Fairport Convention's classic Cajun Woman.

There's only one of Oliver's own compositions on the album, but it's a killer. Roll and Go begins with his voice and simple bass alone and it stays that way, aside from a touch of low-key harmony from Pharis and Catherine. The song is bluesy, stark, and resonant - like a Southern field-holler.

Someone came up to me at the Mission folkfest and said: 'You go into the forest and play with the sounds', recalls Oliver. And I just looked at her and felt naked, 'Like, how do you know?' When I listen to field recordings of traditional music - whether from North America, Africa, Asia, or Europe - I feel there's an incredibly broad palette that was used.

We could talk about how that's changed - how the influence of recorded and broadcast music has created a much greater consensus in terms of what's considered good tone or a nice sound. It's good to have those influences - but for myself right now I get a real kick out of going different places with my voice, and there's definitely a few on the record.

Dry Bones is the work of a group of friends dedicated to creating new traditional music with deep roots, and soul by the spadeful.

We love to play at old-time jams where you just get together in a circle as tight as possible, says Pharis. I play fiddle as well, and Ollie plays claw-hammer banjo, and we all rotate and pick up different instruments and just do tune after tune. It's almost a meditation, where you'll play for 20 minutes without realizing it, just moving head and feet.

It's not about showing off or solos or checking out what someone else is doing - it's about listening and playing together as closely as you can. That's what's really drawn us to this music, I think, and the traditions behind it - where and how the songs were made, and how they've changed.

As for the name Outlaw Social, Oliver has his own take on its significance: We're the best of friends and we love to take chances. Deciding to make a life playing roots music is basically to exclude ourselves from much of the mainstream, commercial world.

We're on the fringe by definition, which in every genre is always the most interesting part. Utah Phillips said to me once 'The problem with the music industry is everyone's trying to make a killing, but there are so few opportunities for that. If you try to make a living, suddenly the whole world is open. There are many ways to do that while staying true to yourself, if you're just trying to hold to what you love.