Shamble On

Cincinnati’s The Whiskey Shambles aged in the barrel for years before tapping into their top-shelf Blues

Nov 12, 2014 at 11:15 am
click to enlarge Cincinnati Blues newcomers The Whiskey Shambles release their debut album this weekend.
Cincinnati Blues newcomers The Whiskey Shambles release their debut album this weekend.


he Whiskey Shambles’ membership seems like the set-up to an elaborate shaggy dog joke. The drummer is actually a bassist. The bassist is a producer. The evocative, earthy female vocals are provided by an Opera singer. The man mountain with the cavernous voice and hellhound guitar is working on his Ph.D. The band’s punchline name could have been The Aristocrats, but Whiskey Shambles suits them fine.

The blistering Blues quartet has accomplished much in a fairly compressed period. Vocalist/guitarist Nathan Singer, bassist Brother James Czar and drummer Aaron Tyree assembled in late 2012 (vocalist/percussionist LaTanya Foster arrived last year) and scored a nomination in the “Blues” category at the most recent Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. The band recently took the top regional honors at the Northeast Ohio Blues Association Blues Challenge, earning a slot at the International Blues Challenge’s Memphis, Tenn., quarterfinals early next year. And the band members are anxiously awaiting the physical copies of their excellent debut full-length, Loose Change for a Broken Man, which will be celebrated at a Save the Animals benefit this Saturday at The Drinkery. 

While Loose Change exudes a contemporary vibe, the album bears the diverse hallmarks of the best ‘70s Blues Rock albums. Like Led Zeppelin, Cream and Free before them, The Whiskey Shambles channels first generation Blues subsets like Delta, Piedmont and Hill Country, combined with the members’ unique individual experiences to conjure an edgy, atmospheric vision of 21st century Blues.

“There’s music we love together, and it’s an eclectic range, but we also come from slightly different areas,” Singer says over drinks at Northside’s Mayday. “LaTanya’s an Opera singer, Aaron and I started off playing Metal and Psych Rock, James started off doing Punk and Bluegrass and I studied Classical and Jazz guitar for a long time. When we got together, we put it all in a pot and stirred it up. Whiskey Shambles gumbo.”

“It’s an open environment, too,” Tyree says. “We give each other enough room to do what we want to do. Nathan comes in with a beautiful composition and we ruin it in the best possible way. Our nice [phrase] for it is ‘Shambling something up.’ ”

The Whiskey Shambles coalesced two years ago, but the band concept had percolated since 2008. Czar was with Voodoo Puppet and invited Singer to audition for the group’s vocalist position. He realized Singer wasn’t right for Voodoo Puppet but would be perfect for the Garage Blues band he’d been envisioning.

“It started a dialogue about doing this dirty Blues thing that we felt needed to happen,” Czar says. “We would exchange emails and run into each other and the conversation kept going.”

Three years ago, Czar was driving through Madisonville when he spotted Singer walking with his family and rolled up to hail his future bandmate.

“I think he thought it was a drive-by,” Czar says.

“I covered my kids,” Singer says with a laugh. “By then it had been three years. I liked Voodoo Puppet but I agreed it was not the project for me. But when he was like, ‘The heavy Blues thing, you still down for that?’ I was like, ‘Sure thing.’ ”

For months, Singer and Czar communicated about their ideas. Singer shared song fragments he’d recorded at home, Czar offered other bands’ songs as sonic examples and pieces of originals that wouldn’t have worked for Voodoo Puppet. By November 2012, the duo knew what they wanted, but had yet to even jam on a song they both knew.

“The last time we got together, I said, ‘Not that I don’t want to sit around having drinks, but I’m tired of sitting around. I’m going to book a gig and we’ve got to be ready,’ ” Czar says. “Because we had talked about it, because Nathan was writing based on what we talked about and because Aaron fit in so well … we came together and in three weeks did a gig after never having played a note together ever.”

The Whiskey Shambles found their audience relatively quickly, a testament to their deliberation and chemistry. If the band’s gestation process was protracted, the making of Loose Change was a comparative whirlwind. The band recorded its first show for a limited-edition EP and recently did another live EP as a fundraiser to offset the cost of the upcoming Memphis jaunt, but they’ve been working in Czar’s home studio since April 2013 on Loose Change, which was mastered (and mentored) by the masterful Dave Davis.

During the early recording process, Singer brought Foster into the Shambles’ circle. Childhood friends who now live blocks apart, Singer ran into Foster walking her dogs and asked if she’d be up for singing on a couple of tracks. They’d been in musical theater together in school and Singer was well aware of her talent.

“She came to our makeshift studio and started laying down tracks, and I was like, ‘How about one more song?’ ” Singer says.

One more song turned into six songs total, after which Foster returned to her life. During a mixing session, the trio decided to ask Foster to do an imminent Northside show and she agreed.

“It was a fun night, and we were talking while we were cleaning up that we wanted to ask her to do more shows,” Czar says of Foster, who was operatically occupied for the interview. “We were afraid she was going to say no because she’s never sang with a Rock band or anything like this. We went over and she said, ‘Before you say anything, can I do another show with you guys?’ ”

The Whiskey Shambles’ quick acceptance may be due to the band’s appeal across the broad spectrum of Blues fans, even those who narrowly compartmentalize their love of the genre. The band has played gigs where it has adjusted the set list to accommodate specific audiences, only to find that the crowd loved them for what they do naturally. Loud, soft, raucous or restrained, the Shambles have found a way to entice the most parochial Blues listener.

“We played Findlay Market and everything we said we were going to do, we didn’t,” Czar says. “By the end of the show, it was off the rails. We’re learning that a lot of people want to cut loose more than they even know.” ©

THE WHISKEY SHAMBLES release their new album Saturday at Over-the-Rhine’s The Drinkery (