April 06, 2020

The Tough Cats bring bluegrass, folk to Belfast

There are a few things that take up most of my time, outside of scouting around Maine for awesome musicians to write about. I see my friends. I read a lot and watch movies. I hang out with my cat, Stan. I drink too much coffee. I obsessively organize my iTunes library.

But what I really want to do is play the banjo.

I don’t know what it is about it, but I’ve always loved the banjo. I’m terrible at it – I borrowed a friend’s a few years ago and tried to teach myself, and it sounded awful. Perhaps it’s all due to my childhood hero, Kermit the Frog, or maybe it’s just that I hope to someday sit on the front porch, wear overalls and pluck away. Either way, this is why I am very happy to introduce this week’s local band to you – the Tough Cats, an indie bluegrass-folk band that features, among other things, the banjo.

The members of the North Haven trio spend most of their days lobster fishing and doing carpentry. But when they’re not working hard to make a living, they’re writing infectious, quirky songs for an equally quirky roster of instruments, which besides banjo includes ukulele, resonator guitar, and a patched-together drum kit made of a few real drums, hunks of metal and a suitcase.

“It’s funny, because of our instrumentation, the full drum set was too much,” said banjo player and vocalist Colin Gulley, 27. “So we had to improvise. Jake [Greenlaw, the drummer] has an assortment of stuff for his set, and you never know what he’ll come up with. We’re always working on Jake’s set. It’s got such a unique sound, and he’s such a unique drummer. He’s kind of the centerpiece of our performance, because he’s so enthusiastic.”

Greenlaw, 21, hooked up with Gulley and guitarist Joe Nelson two years ago for a one-off gig at a benefit concert on North Haven. The way Gulley puts it, they threw together a few songs for the show, decided it sounded good and then stuck with it. Though school and work has kept them from playing many shows, now that all three are permanently living on the island, they’re getting out a little more – such as their show this weekend at Three Tides in Belfast.

“Jake’s been away at college, and Joe and I work all the time,” he said. “We’ve just played on the island, during the summers mostly. But now we’re able to play more regularly, and on the mainland.”

Though you might peg them as a bluegrass band, the Tough Cats have just as much Tom Waits as twang in their sound. Their second album, 2006’s “Pinata,” combines old-timey picking with a rock edge, all buoyed by a sense of humor, some wicked vocal harmonies and a whole lot of energy.

Gulley found his banjo inspiration from an interesting source – not Kermit the Frog, but another movie character.

“When I was a senior in high school I saw the movie ‘Harold and Maude,’ and there’s a banjo in the movie,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, I want to play banjo.’ So I went out and got one, plunked away at it. Had a few lessons here and there, and it just got rolling. I never played guitar, or even studied music at all. I think that gives it a unique sound.”

Kramer, the former Butthole Surfers bassist and producer for Sonic Youth, Ween and others, heard some tracks from “Pinata” that the band had posted online and was so impressed he offered to master the tracks, recorded in the community center on North Haven, and bring them a cleaner studio sound.

“Joe’s brother plays in a band called Howard Amb in L.A., and one of the other band members keeps in touch with Kramer,” said Gulley. “He came across our MySpace page and liked the music, and said he wanted he wanted to work with us. He mastered it and cleaned it up.”

Live, the Tough Cats bring in film clips and a bit of acting to keep the crowd engaged – expect to see some onstage antics on Saturday at Three Tides.

“We like to keep it interesting,” said Gulley. “Keep the audience on its toes.”

The Tough Cats will play at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Three Tides in Belfast. For information, visit www.myspace.com/toughcats. Emily Burnham can be reached at eburnham@bangordailynews.net.

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