Hanging with the Howard Brothers Band is like time tripping through calendars past. To drive home the point, guitarist/vocalist Steve Howard, his bassist brother Aaron and their uncle, drummer Tim Blankenship, draw me into a foosball game in the basement of Mason's Brazenhead Cafe at the start of our interview. I haven't touched a foosball table since college, evidenced by some sloppy goalkeeping, but luckily Aaron is good enough for both of us and we eke out a narrow victory.
"For the record, we kicked their asses," says Aaron afterward Ah, the advantages of rose-tinted hindsight.
For that same record, while HBB may glean inspiration from '70s hall-of-fame Blues Rock on their debut CD, Catch the Party Train, the trio doesn't practice historical revisionism. They prefer celebration without glorification.
"First it was him, breaking out Robin Trower and Mahogany Rush albums," says Steve Howard, nodding toward Blankenship. "At the time, he and I were in a band called Affinity which was '80s Rock and Metal. I was only 16, and he had me listening to old Montrose, Pat Travers ... good stuff."
The Howards and Blankenship have been working and playing around town in various forms over the years, most recently characterized by Steve's stint in Severed.
When he began writing songs that clearly didn't fit the Metal mold, he recruited Blankenship to help flesh them out during occasional basement jams.
With Severed's 2005 demise, Steve decided to form a new band around his '70s-influenced material. When an early bassist departed, Steve recruited his guitarist brother Aaron, convincing him he should drop a couple of strings. The Howard Brothers Band was officially launched.
When their original drummer couldn't commit to regional touring, the Howards convinced their uncle Tim to fill the void, and HBB became a family affair. Almost immediately they began recording, but fate dealt them a bad hand: Blankenship's mother — the Howards' grandmother — fell ill and passed away last summer. The loss exacted an understandable toll.
"We listened to everything back and you could tell we were depressed," says Steve. "I was like, 'We're going to have to do it over. That's all there is to it.' It was a rough summer."
After scrapping much of the recording done during that difficult period, the trio went back to the drawing board, revisiting the material with a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of purpose. But once again, progress was derailed by a succession of issues, including therapy for Steve's nerve damaged left hand, Aaron's neck surgery and Blankenship's back surgery earlier this year.
"We're the most broke down band in the city," says Steve with a laugh.
Blankenship did his drum tracks in January and went under the knife the following month. While he recuperated, the Howards recorded their parts in Steve's home studio. In the midst of finishing Catch the Party Train, HBB has been active locally at Loveland's Shady O'Grady's, among other local spots, and done a good deal of regional touring, going into Pennsylvania, West Virginia and all over the general tri-state area. Wherever they play, they bring a solid work ethic.
"We put the effort in," says Aaron. "You get back what you put into it and we put as much into it as we can."
"And it's not always about the money," says Blankenship. "We practice more than most bands, we're traveling quite a bit and doing the jobs, too. We'll go out of our way to play for a few people or a lot."
Part of HBB's mission statement was to reflect the visceral Blues Rock vibe that was so prevalent in the '70s. They've captured that essence on Catch the Party Train and amp it up even further during their live appearances.
"It's more about keeping a vibe alive," says Steve. "The '90s music scene got real boring for me and so I turned hard to the Blues and it evolved back into this '70s Rock thing. We wanted to go for that timeless genre. It might sound like something from the '70s but we're from 2008, and we're OK with that."
A powerful aspect of HBB's dynamic sound is obviously the genetic connection. The two-brother-and-an-uncle set up is a natural.
"We keep writing, and it just flows out of us because we're related," says Aaron. "We all like the same stuff."
Another part of HBB's raison d'etre is trying to recapture the spirit that was rampant in the local music scene in the '80s, when Short Vine was always happening and bands and audiences shared a special, more personal bond.
"We like to create a party atmosphere," says Steve Howard. "Just have a good time. From traveling around, we see a lack of that in Cincinnati, and our city is big enough to have a good time. We're having a good time. Come out and have one with us. Get off the couch."
THE HOWARD BROTHERS BAND (myspace.com/howardbrothersband) hosts a CD release party Saturday at the Madison Theater. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.