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Preview Sat Jan 11 2014

The Vulgar Boatmen: A Tall Tale of Indie Rock

The+Vulgar+Boatmen.jpgAt some point, the ways and means of starting and keeping a rock band became codified; though the tools have changed, the beginnings of most bands tend to read pretty similarly. You may find your band mates through scouring the Classifieds or Craigslist, or you may meet them by chance at a gig or a party. It could be new acquaintances or it could be your friends since grade school, but typically, the story begins with an assorted cadre of four of five people on drums, bass, and guitars who gather for the tentative first rehearsals and the punch-drunk first show. By some miracle, if the center holds, there's the possibility of more shows, maybe more fans, and perhaps even the chance at making albums. Other genres are undoubtedly propagated with their own common geneses, but the progression rock bands take has remained remarkably common, albeit not without exception. This makes the understated yet singular story of how The Vulgar Boatmen came to be all the more remarkable, and one of the greater exceptions around.

Any discussion of The Vulgar Boatmen inevitably focuses on their peculiar arrangement; there's more to the band than its lineup and lifespan, but the story behind the music is so fascinating as to demand the attention of those who care to look. The band was born in the classrooms of the University of Florida, with film studies professor Robert Ray eventually seizing the reins. He initiated a writing partnership with Indianapolis punk upstart Dale Lawrence, who was a former student of his, and they composed the songs for the band via cassette tapes sent by mail. As they were crafting their first record in this iteration, Ray and some friends were playing shows in Florida under the name The Vulgar Boatmen. Lawrence was eager to go public with this burgeoning song catalog he could lay claim to, so he organized a Vulgar Boatmen of his own in Indiana. The country now had two Vulgar Boatmen bands to choose from. It was an effortless, intuitive obliteration of the stagnated format prevalent in rock and roll, and it led to live shows and albums; the center held despite the band's unconventional origins (this cursory background doesn't do justice to the tale, and feel free to check out this page for a more exhaustive account).

The music of the Vulgar Boatmen is propulsive without the serrated edges, and ethereal without approaching feyness. There's a trace of Murmur-era R.E.M. in the mystery of it all, with a bit more country in the instrumentation and a lot less incomprehensibility in the vocals. The songs don't tend to hit hard, although with their pop sensibilities they could certainly have been presented as such. Instead, they arrive as ghosts, the shifty residue that's left over from a more audacious college radio hit. Their most famous song is "Drive Somewhere," which is also the title of a documentary about the band released in 2010. It's a song that manages to succeed despite seeming longer than it actually is; it's a mere five-minute stretch, but the immersion that accompanies hearing it is so all-encompassing that it feels like I've been wrapped in the tune for hours by the time the melody makes its leave.

Unfortunately, the Florida iteration of the band seems defunct, but Lawrence's Indianapolis contingent still plays occasional shows, including what has become a periodic sojourn to Schuba's. The Vulgar Boatmen play Schuba's Tavern (3159 N. Southport) this Saturday, Jan. 11, with The Purcells opening the gig. The show begins at 9pm and tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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