When a musician’s out on the road he or she is usually happy as hell to field a call from a hometown journalist, maybe taking the opportunity to promote their latest recorded masterpiece. But when the Straight tracks down local roots-rocker Dustin Bentall in Minnesota, answering the call means that he can not only plug his band’s new EP but also take a respite from one of the least glorious aspects of touring.
“Perfect timing,” notes the leader of Dustin Bentall & the Smøkes. “We’re just about to load in to the gig, so I’m off the hook.”
On the itinerary tonight is a Minneapolis venue called 7th St. Entry, which follows an exhilarating gig two nights earlier at Schubas Tavern in Chicago (“They were bouncing off the walls”). Before that it was cities like Cleveland, Nashville, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, all part of a four-week, 24-date tour in support of Orion, released in October on Toronto’s Aporia Records.
The six-song disc was produced by Vancouver pop-rock maestro Ryan Dahle, whom Bentall met with the help of a mutual friend, photographer Mark Maryanovich.
“Mark always told me, ‘Dude, you gotta work with Ryan,’ ” explains Bentall, “and he always told Ryan, ‘You gotta hook up with Dustin.’ So one day when I needed to get some demos done we went to his studio and recorded a bunch of songs really quickly, and that ended my search for a producer right there. Just the way the songs sounded, I knew right away that I wanted to do the whole album with him.”
According to Bentall, it’s Dahle’s knowledge of gear, his care for sonic quality, and his creativity that make the former Age of Electric and Limblifter member such a force in the studio. “He’s really not shy to try new things and just roll with anything that feels good,” he points out.
The son of radio-friendly pop-rocker turned folk troubadour Barney Bentall, Dustin has been making waves on the music scene ever since the release of his debut album, Streets With No Lights, which was one of the finest Canadian roots albums of ’07.
“There’s something about that album that I love as well, so much,” he says. “We captured that sort of first-time-in-the-studio thing, where it’s the first time I was really singing into a microphone and hearing myself back. And it’s real honest and pure that way. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into it on my end. I just had the songs and they stuck me in the studio and we recorded them.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years about recording technique and songwriting,” he adds, “and we were much more adventurous on this new EP, so there’s more going on. And also, now that Kendel plays in the band full-time, it’s very fiddle-centric.”
Six years back, it was the soaring pedal-steel guitar of Johnny Ellis that coloured Bentall’s twangy odes to the road on Streets, but now it’s the smoking fiddle work of Victoria-raised Kendel Carson that’s stirring things up.
“It’s especially great and fun if we’re in front of a crowd who’ve never seen us,” relates Bentall. “They see the fiddle and they expect one thing, and then they get this, like, heavy dose of rock ’n’ roll coming from the fiddle that they’ve never seen before, and it blows people’s minds.”
Besides Bentall and Carson, the Smøkes include drummer Rich Knox and bassist Del Cowsill, whose late father inspired Orion’s bittersweet “The Ballad of Billy Cowsill”. “He’d play on the hood of his car when they wouldn’t let him into the bar,” sings Bentall in his heartfelt ode to the much-loved former Cowsills and Blue Shadows singer.
Considering the quality of the songs on Orion, it’s a bit of a drag that there are only six of them, but the good news is that Bentall will be releasing another half-dozen from the same sessions on a follow-up EP in April. Then sometime this summer all 12 tracks will be rereleased together on vinyl.
That plan suits Bentall just fine, as he’s a huge fan of the 12-inch platter. His last purchase in that format was Bob Dylan’s 1969 LP Nashville Skyline, no surprise considering he was “an absolute nut” for the legendary tunesmith at one point in his life. Nowadays, though, his main goal is to bring it like one of Dylan’s famed collaborators.
“Tom Petty has the kind of music that just makes you want to turn it up loud,” he points out. “It makes you want to get in your car and drive, and that’s the kind of music I would really love to create.”