The River and the Road toughen up with Headlights

The well-travelled men of the River and the Road want to see the world, making music every step of the way

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      Trace the River and the Road back to its beginnings, and things start at Café Deux Soleils on Commercial Drive, where Aussie expat Andrew Phelan and Vancouver Island–raised Keenan Lawlor started bumping into each other. As close as the two singer-songwriters are today, it wasn’t exactly a bromance at first sight.

      “I was living in a little nook, in a crawlspace in a house in East Vancouver,” Phelan recalls, talking with Lawlor on a cellphone from a Regina tour stop. “I used to go down to Café Deux Soleils on the Drive and try and play the open mike there as often as I could. Every couple of weeks I’d see Keenan. There was, like, a monthlong period where he’d be playing just before me, or just after me. We didn’t really talk a lot. We loved what each other was doing on-stage, but we weren’t huge fans of each other personally. It was like ‘Aaah, I don’t know about that guy.’ ”

      Chalk that up to having decidedly disparate personalities. Happy to hang out in the background when he’s not on-stage, Lawlor grew up in a house where giants such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Band, and Bob Dylan were in heavy rotation. Later on, he’d add the introspective likes of Elliott Smith, Damien Rice, and Ray LaMontagne to his iPod favourites list. Phelan is an outgoing Aussie raised Down Under on a diet that included Queen, the Beatles, and the Temptations. As a kid, he’d pile into the van with his mom and camp out at Australian folk festivals, which prepared him for a life on the road as a drummer for hire when he first moved to North America.

      “We’re different people,” Lawlor acknowledges. “I’m quite introverted, and I would say that Andrew is a little more on the extroverted side. We both definitely like our own space, but he’s more boisterous than me, while I’m pretty quiet.”

      Despite their differences, the two didn’t take long to bond.

      “There was a massive amount of performance respect,” Phelan relates. “So we ended up passing phone numbers to each other, and going, ‘Yeah, okay—we’ll see how this feels. I’ll see what you’re like as a person outside of Café Deux, where you try and get up and play three songs as hard as you can to grab people’s attention.’ And it all just clicked really simply. Within a month and a half, I’d moved out of the crawlspace and into a basement, and Keenan moved out of a place in Kits and into the basement with me. And then the next month we recorded the album.”

      That album would be The River and the Road, a record with hushed guitars and honey-bourbon harmonies that landed Phelan and Lawlor on the frontlines of Vancouver’s fertile folk-rock scene. The two musicians committed to one simple idea right from their initial jam sessions.

      “A big part of it was us putting our songs forward, not with the mentality of ‘This is my song,’ but more that ‘This is going to be our song,’ ” Lawlor offers. “That’s because you always get more out of the people that you’re working with if they are invested in what you’re doing. I remember we were both promoting our own Facebook pages, and then we were suddenly like, ‘I think we gotta come up with a name because we’ve got a few songs now.’ That was after our first couple of shows—it was pretty immediate.”

      Having mastered quiet and beautiful last time out, the River and the Road cranks up the amps on its new sophomore album, Headlights. Those who loved the dying-campfire beauty of the band’s earlier work won’t be disappointed by melancholy gold like “The Beast”. But right from the ramped-up opener, “Mistakes”, the River and the Road sounds like it’s been doing whisky shots while studying the long and glorious history of alt-country. Much of Headlights wouldn’t sound out of place in a roadhouse where the floors are covered in sawdust and the jukebox is stacked with the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Long Ryders, and Uncle Tupelo.

      Phelan and Lawlor, who cut their teeth together busking on Commercial Drive, suggest there’s an easy explanation for the shift in dynamics, namely the addition of drummer Cole George and bassist John Hayes. The new enlistees now provide the back-end punch that colours Headlights.

      “Keenan and I did the first album without Cole and John,” Phelan says. “They joined at the launch of that album—so in some ways they’ve always been part of the band in a live sense. A lot of people tend to look at the River and the Road, and go, ‘Who’s the River, and who’s the Road?’ It’s like, ‘There’s two guys that sing, so they must be the band.’ For Keenan and I, that’s cool and all, but it’s just not true. It’s not even me being self-effacing. It’s more that we wouldn’t be in the place that we are now if we didn’t have the collective drive of all four of us.”

      Headlights, which was produced by Jamey Koch (Tragically Hip, D.O.A.), does indeed sound like the work of a locked and loaded group, which is exactly the point. It also finds the River and the Road spreading out artistically, with standouts including the woozy Tex-Mex waltz “Strange Disease” and the organ-saturated, gunsmoke Americana of “Weakness”.

      “I definitely wanted the band to come across—the fact that it’s the four of us now,” Lawlor says. “It was something that we had to document, more than anything. For me, I wanted something real and raw, I guess. And to really take the songs as far as they could go. I feel like on our first album, we were rushed for time and didn’t really have the tools to tap into all the things we heard in our heads.”

      The idea of pulling up stakes surfaces repeatedly on Headlights. Consider, for example, the banjo-powered hoedown “Child With a Gun”, with its lyrics “So I flew from my home like a child with a gun.” For both Lawlor and Phelan, there’s a great big beautiful world out there, and there’s no point tethering yourself to one small part of it. That’s a heads-up that the River and the Road is out for more than major-player status in its hometown, having already racked up multiple Canadian tours, as well as an extended swing through Australia. They might be different as people, but if the River and the Road has taught Keenan and Phelan anything, it’s that they have common goals.

      “With Keenan and I, there’s a big focus on travel, and an aspiration to leave where you come from,” Phelan says. “Both of us agree it’s a really healthy way to expand your life experience. Songs like ‘Strange Disease’ and ‘Headlights’ really have that thematic idea of leaving somewhere and trying to get away from somewhere. It’s not because wherever you are is a bad place. It’s just knowing that there’s something more out there.”

      The River and the Road plays a Headlights release party at the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (May 30).