Since their incarnation, the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow has been more recognizable on film than on record: last year, the band was the subject of director Tim Bradley’s documentary of the same name, a praise-worthy project selected to 17 national film festivals, winning awards for “Best Regional Doc,” “Best Short Doc,” and “Best Music Doc.”
The Roadshow formed specifically for that tour, as a temporary songwriters’ circle that would disband upon its completion. They never did, and the last 18 months has largely been spent in support of the documentary, with a host of shows at premieres, screenings and film festivals, and only sporadic audio and video releases (a requirement to maintain eligibility at most festivals).
It’s an untraditional route for an outlet whose strength lies in diverse, textured songs, songs that fans have clamored for since coming into contact with the Treaty.
On The Heart of the Run, the band’s debut, those songs are collected, fleshed out, and fully realized under the electricity of a live performance. Recorded in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in September, the album captures the band’s headlining performance at the season’s final Shire City Session, a concert series that also featured the Wild Adriatic and members of Deertick.
While this is the first official release under the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow banner, the band’s members—Tory Hanna, Billy Keane, Chris Merenda, Greg Smith, and Dave Tanklefsky—have totaled 18 albums while working as solo artists, frontmen, sidemen, and founding members of now-defunct bands. The Heart of the Run is a combination of that veteran savvy, but with a newcomers’ kinetic energy, which results in the album’s cathartic feeling, like this is what the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow was put together to do.
The choice to lead with a live album was two-fold: first, due to the economics of independent artistry, and second, as a quintessential representation of the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, which was founded under the principles of “Brotherhood, Music, and Fine Spirits.”
That essence is captured on The Heart of the Run, where they lead with Fine Spirits: Greg Smith’s chugging memoir “Whiskey Breath and Cigarettes,” opens the album with bended notes and penetrating lyrics, tapping into the romance and celebration of hard living. As his guitar rings out with the song’s final chord, Greg confidentially shouts, “Welcome to the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow!"--suggesting this is a place to be, rather than something to listen to.
“Jimmy the Whiskey Boy” follows, a raucous number that most fully captures the breadth of the band’s sound. Tory Hanna shines on it, both as a singer and showman, but he willing steps aside for ripping, electric solos, Billy Keane’s slide resonator, and Chris Merenda’s subtly plucked banjo strings. That’s met with tactful musical breaks, gritty, soulful backing vocals, and an entirely foot-stomped and hand-clapped breakdown, where band and crowd unify to sing, “Shovel in her hand, whiskey down her throat, Papa’s in the ground that’s all she wrote/The kitchen’s on fire, but Mama’s alright, Daddy’s gonna sleep like a baby tonight.”
It’s an unnerving refrain, but the Whiskey Treaty makes it charming, almost always lining their songs with hope and revelry, even when they sing about a governor’s vengeance on an innocent man for his wife’s infidelity (“The Governor’s Wife”), an unlawful sheriff-turned-bank-robber (“Good Ol’ Ruby”), or the bleak state of our atmosphere (“Everyday It’s Always Something”).
These narratives are well spun, and put on display the group’s skillful songwriting and masterful storytelling, without being brooding. They defy that expectation, and offer something most outfits don’t: options.
The group has five singers, five sonic approaches to the genre, and in that way, they’re folk’s boy band. Audiences are able to pick and choose their favorites, which keeps The Heart of the Run freshly off balance, without lulls or monotony.
Dave Tanklefsky arrives with a tactical guitar on "Fools," which reinforces a joke within the band: once people think they’ve figured out the Whiskey Treaty, Dave plays. He is something of the group's indie presence, with sticky, floating riffs to fit introspective ballads like "Massachusetts" and "River," the latter being the most "slowed down" the group gets over the course of the album’s sixteen tracks, standing as an outlet for their most poignant harmonies.
Billy Keane’s "Big Ol' Bottle of Wine" is a timeless country-blues that could’ve been written in any era, but only recently came off Keane’s pen. It’s joyful in its everyday simplicity, showing off his already-impressive vocal register and setting up Merenda's cartoonish "Born to Pick Bluegrass,” where Merenda sings that James, Kirk, and Lars (of Metallica) see him in a music store, ask him to play bass for the band’s tour, but he declines: "Metal's not my thing, it's kind of a bore." The song is as catchy as it is clever, lending itself to a record that is already danceable in the extreme.
Like a well-crafted screenplay, the album finds a climax in the second act, first with Greg Smith’s bouncing, quick-hitter “Bound for Glory,” which airs on the sunny side of Smith’s rambling, hell-raising tales. Merenda then juxtaposes "Bluegrass" with "Fall into Place," where his scratchy, earnest voice soars above a band in full sprint, as they insistently pour the tune out into the ether. The song's thoughtful lyricism crescendos with its sound, and the whole of the group loses itself in the free spinning rocker.
The final track, "Leave Your Light On," is the band’s defacto anthem. Almost all Whiskey Treaty shows end with it, for good reason: Billy Keane's simple, talk-sung verses lead into a chorus perfectly suited for five voices, or an ever-expanding crowd of listeners. It's a harmonious echo set on a loop, only reluctantly ending in compliance with Pittsfield's curfew. Keane gets a conclusive punch in, though, with final, a capella notes ("Leave my light on youuu") that are the album’s most beautiful.
The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow’s catalog is already deep and expansive, and that's evident on The Heart of the Run, an introduction to an ensemble with a head start. The combination of talent draws on experience, offers their individual best, and allows it to be shaped with their newfound countrymen. It’s an egalitarian approach at work, and if the Whiskey Treaty maintains this heart, their run will be long, and it will be storied.