Blaine Duncan never went looking for a band. The band came to him.
In the summer of 2006, Duncan was approached by drummer Mikey Oswalt, who wanted to back the folksy songwriter with other gifted musicians. This set the stage for the formation of The Lookers.
Blaine Duncan & the Lookers honed their craft in a barn until their debut in February 8, 2007. They have been going strong ever since, calling Tuscaloosa their home even before their inception.
While time has passed and some band members have changed, one thing remains certain: Blaine Duncan & the Lookers still mix wit with weariness, unorthodox vocals with thematic beauty, and country with rock.
Blaine Duncan - Acoustic Guitars, Electic Guitar, Lead Vocals and Harmonica
Kendall Rich - Bass
Adam Ridgway - Drums
David Phillips - Lead Guitar
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers--Blaine Duncan and the Lookers (May, 2009)
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers--The Missing Honeybees EP (April, 2007)
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Unreleased Track Reestablishes Duncan Among Tuscaloosa's Best
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I should repeat with affection, for those who don’t know, the frequently observed fact that Blaine D...I should repeat with affection, for those who don’t know, the frequently observed fact that Blaine Duncan teaches high school English by day. By night he stands sweating over the sticky floor of Egan’s, semi-obscured by smoke and sheer sonic force, almost equidistant between his band and a rolling crowd of friends and strangers. Plumes of beer fill the air as he counts off into the next song. Do his students have any idea?
Duncan stands at close to six feet, grows straight blonde hair from out his head and has the sort of clean shave you might find on the cheek of a plaster bust. At 33, he has survived one near-fatal car crash, one marriage and divorce, an occasional propensity for substance overindulgence and a swath of smoldering heartbreaks. A résumé to embitter the most upbeat among us, Duncan retains his trademark good nature, preferring to sacrifice those demons in his songwriting.
From a lyrical standpoint, Duncan’s eponymous first album — released in 2009 but recorded a year earlier — was a restless churning of dark humor, delirium and Southern doom. Such universal themes as whiskey, poverty, soul searching, pills and love affairs filled its often-impudent verses, with a clever social or political quip occasionally added for good measure (“I don’t think certain people should be in government” — he ain’t kidding).
The album’s music drew most overtly from the blistering alternative-country-rock of the Drive-By Truckers and the Dexateens, but also, to me, appeared aligned with quite another flavor of alt-country that of Conor Oberst. Duncan’s vocals, though scratchier and less warbling, often resemble Oberst’s, especially on the latter-half of the album (excepting the closing track). Of course, unlike Oberst, Duncan’s drawl is not copped but indigenous, and his overall approach intends, truth-be-told, to raise more hell. Still, Duncan certainly exhibited some lyrical and vocal instincts not unlike those of Oberst, and that’s a compliment. It’s worth noting that both consider themselves songwriters first.
The unreleased track “Reckless,” received recently by your columnist in early demo form, embodies a substantial maturation in Duncan’s personal voice as a songwriter. “And it’s a reckless motherf—er/that don’t listen to the words,” laments Duncan over his own simple-but-supportive acoustic accompaniment. Those familiar themes of substance dependency and existential malaise are reengaged from the more even-tempered vantage of a world-weary post-divorce Duncan. His sense of humor has shifted as well, from sprawling irreverence to something more pointed.
At the song’s pre-chorus, Duncan sings: “And it’s become trite/I’m always disappointed, the drugs are alright/And it’s a short life;” then, at the chorus: “Wishing every morning was Saturday night.” It’s the stuff of a local anthem. Indeed the full-band version, performed live on numerous occasions, has ended in an unsolicited audience sing-along each time I’ve seen it.
So the excellent “Reckless,” consummate Tuscaloosa anthem it appears to be, vaults Duncan into the highest tier of local songwriters. Hopefully the final version will maintain the demo’s stripped-down instrumentation; Duncan’s lyrics and vocal delivery deserve the spotlight. No doubt whatever form the song takes should be a compelling one. If “Reckless” is any indication of what’s to come from Blaine Duncan, his next album holds about as much promise as anyone could reasonably hope for.
Words Play Important Role in Day, Night Jobs
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"Blaine Duncan didn't go looking for a band. The band came to him. The 31-year-old Sulligent nat..."Blaine Duncan didn't go looking for a band.
The band came to him.
The 31-year-old Sulligent native said he was content just writing songs and playing acoustic shows at clubs in the Tuscaloosa area.
"Before long, I had people that wanted to play in a band," Duncan said. "I was happy to have people approach me."
Apparently it was Duncan's song-
writing abilities that drew other musicians to him.
"I didn't start writing songs until four or five years ago," Duncan said. "I still consider myself fresh at that."
Blaine Duncan and The Lookers will be performing Saturday at the Old Town Tavern on Montgomery Avenue in Sheffield. Shoals blues artist Eric "Red Mouth" Gebhardt is opening the show.
Duncan said he started playing drums, but began learning guitar after a car crash in 1997. He spent two weeks in a hospital and a month at home recovering from a broken pelvis and tail bone.
"I was never really good at drums," Duncan said. "A friend let me borrow a guitar during my convalescing. I learned chords and went from there."
Once he recovered, Duncan continued to play guitar and eventually began playing acoustic shows.
He describes the music he does now with his band as "John Prine backed up by the Drive-By Truckers."
The band includes Duncan on guitar, David Phillips and Ham Bagby on guitars, Ryan Akers on bass and Mikey Oswalt on drums.
Originally, Duncan played mostly cover songs. He began writing his own songs after the dissolution of a relationship.
"I was engaged to be married, and it ended," he said.
Writing songs, he said, helped ease the pain.
"It helped make me laugh at it and how absurd it was," Duncan said.
So it's not surprising that many of Duncan's songs center around women, relationships and the strangeness and oddities of people in general.
For example, about a year ago, Duncan finished a song about Roy Sullivan, a Virginia man who was struck by lightning seven times in his lifetime and survived each one. Sullivan eventually took his own life.
"He killed himself over unrequited love," Duncan said. "I carried that song around for years."
Duncan said lately he can't help but write songs.
"It's just the way things are in America," he said. "They're not apocalyptic songs, but shorter, darker songs."
After he was over his broken-
relationship phase of songwriting, Duncan said he began writing songs about Tuscaloosa, but eventually got burned out on that as well.
Duncan said he has a habit of reworking the lyrics of his songs again and again until they're just right.
Since the band members all have full-time jobs, Duncan said they get to practice very little. Because of this, it's not uncommon for songs to evolve over time, often through live performances.
"We have a song now called 'Blast' that we've played three times live and still don't have the lyrics for it," Duncan said.
Duncan said his musical influences are a common bar room conversation topic.
He cites Tuscaloosa's Dexateens as an influence when building a song.
John Prine is another influence as is the Memphis-based rock band Lucero.
"Anybody who ever picked up a guitar and wrote a song listened to (Bob) Dylan a lot," Duncan said. "When I was a kid I listened to Dinosaur Jr. a lot."
When he was 4 or 5 years old, Duncan said he would sit in the front seat of his grandfather's car and sing Johnny Cash and Waylon Jenning's songs at the urging of his older sister.
When Duncan is not on the road playing music, he works as a ninth-grade English teacher at a Tuscaloosa high school.
"It's exhausting," Duncan said. "But it's a living,"
Blaine Duncan: Looking for More Than Just a Label
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If there's a genre that stunningly hasn't made a mainstream comeback in the 'Recession Era' of our t...If there's a genre that stunningly hasn't made a mainstream comeback in the 'Recession Era' of our time, it is the blues. It seems surprising there's not a feeling of men and women reacting to the terrible things around them in the same way jive, boogie- woogie and Delta sounds exploded during the Depression.
However, one local artist and his band have taken a lot of cues from the great bluesmen of the past, while altering the sound in their own self-contained way.
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers released their debut CD three months ago to critical fanfare from the Tuscaloosa music scene. Having listened to the disc, I can easily see why there's buzz about the group's distinctly old-school approach, and how the blues influences the band's sound.
'David [Phillips], one of our guitar players, is deeply soaked in the blues,' Duncan says. Duncan is the Lookers' chief songwriter, lead vocalist and left-handed guitarist. 'A lot of David's licks and a lot of his guitar styles lean towards that bluesy sound.'
However, Duncan quickly noted that he hates being tagged in a set genre and that his band draws from all sorts of places, not just one particular genre.
'Our influences musically are very diverse. David loves the blues and bands like Scrapomatic. And then you got Ham [Bagby, the band's lead guitarist] who is 100 percent '80s rock. Prince is his main influence. Mikey Oswalt, our drummer, would cite his favorite bands as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Foo Fighters. And Ryan [Akers], who played bass on the album, not with us anymore, he's an indie rock guy.'
Duncan comes off as an affable guy in person, which extends to his performance style and approach to live shows, as well as to the appealing nature of the band's music.
'The sound is very large and powerful, but also very inviting,' Bagby says. 'It's like Blaine is hosting a party rather than performing. I think there is a trend in independent music for bands to try to be intimidating and too cool, and I think that the audience kind of appreciates a nice guy every once in a while.'
Bagby is very similar in nature to Duncan, as far as being a personable guy, and there's a definite humility to his and the band's approach to making music. Bagby especially was quick to praise everyone else's contribution to the group, whether it be the 'guitar monster' that is David Phillips, or the pleasantries of drummer Mikey Oswalt. He is quick to praise the work of former bassist Akers, while also calling new bassist Kendall Rich 'extraordinary.'
'Blaine has a real knack for writing songs that are vivid but very open to new voicings, and he has surrounded himself with a band that is very inviting,' Bagby said. 'Playing live with this band is more than you could ever ask for as far as gigs go. Dynamic, but comfortable — that's what playing with the Lookers is like if I had to put it in a shoebox.
'I think that element kind of extends to the audience in a very real way. Blaine's painted his picture and he just lets us write all over it, but we somehow come away with a masterpiece most of the time.'
It seems almost odd that both Duncan and Bagby are incredibly nice, considering that the band's music stands out when Duncan is going full blast on certain dislikes of society and popular culture. A great example of this is the absurdly titled 'I Don't Smoke Dope With Satan (Since He Left Me At The Mall),' one of the band's more popular songs simply on the basis of its title. Duncan thought of the title after mistranslating the lyrics of a Lucero song.
'Lucero's words are hard to figure out and sometimes kind of hard to get, so I swore that he said something like ‘Satan don't smoke grass.' And I went online as soon as I got back home and, of course, I found that it was nothing like the lyrics,' Duncan said.
'So I thought, ‘Well, there's something I could use.' And the ‘at the mall,' I don't know where that came from. I guess I was just trying to be over the top. And [the song] is ridiculous, but the gear shifts pretty quickly to the things that I actually hated at that time or still do hate.'
Even if the music never gets particularly dark, Duncan does often work out his problems and emotions in the songs, some of which are a bit deeper than even he expected.
'Although I'm not the narrator in many of the songs, I do have those feelings,' he said. ' ‘Virginia' is a good example of a situation where I'm very much not that character and I did not write that from my point of view whatsoever. I put a lot of my feelings in there, and you have to or you won't be able to perform. It is totally cathartic.
'And in writing, you put yourself in someone else's shoes and then you ask yourself, ‘How would I feel?' And it helps you release some of that emotion you felt, whether you knew you had it or not.'
Furthermore, one of the dislikes Duncan has in 'I Don't Smoke Dope' is the harsh presence of pop country and its negative changes on the style of roots country and the history of country music, a dislike that is the bonding point between the members of the band.
'We consider ourselves moreso a country band, or a rural rock band,' Duncan says. The 'rural rock' quip is intoned sarcastically, simply because Duncan's pet peeve is describing the band's sound, and ridiculous genre names — like the Drive-By Truckers' 'cowpunk' — do not quite describe it.
'I just think of ourselves as a country band that's really energetic.'
Blaine Duncan & the Lookers: Album Review
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"Thank the lord for Blaine Duncan & The Lookers. Because, finally, I have a reason to be excited abo..."Thank the lord for Blaine Duncan & The Lookers. Because, finally, I have a reason to be excited about new music.
Let's face it: there ain't much to get excited about in the country/Southern rock music scene these days.
Mainstream radio hasn't put out anything that can even remotely be called country since Shania Twain burst on the scene in the '90s and with the ever-graceful presence of the angel of death. Yeah, there are a couple of mainstays that you can't deny (Alan Jackson and George Strait, namely); but, it ain't country anymore -- it's pop, plain and simple. The Nashville suits are always looking for the next Rascal Flatts or Taylor Swift. Shooter Jennings said it best: "They built Music City by sacrificing soul."
And rock radio... well, has there ever really been a place for Southern rock in the mainstream? Quick, name me five Southern rock acts who really transcended boundaries and rose above the regional biases. Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, ZZ Top... umm, that's it, right? Maybe there's not room for simple songs about life. Or maybe if you don't wear eyeliner and shirts four-times too small with a scarf you don't get played. I don't know the rules, I just know they're stupid.
So we're forced to look beyond what's given to us. We're forced (although a good number of us, like myself, go willingly) into smoke-filled, dimly-lit bars to hear real music.
And it is there that you find Blaine Duncan & The Lookers, as sure and dependable as any band out there.
Their live shows are unmistakable. The three-guitar melodic attack of Duncan, David Phillips and Ham Bagby leads the way, striking a fine balance between boogie-down licks and rock-fist thrusting solos. The rhythm section of Kendall Rich on bass (a spot formerly filled by Ryan Akers, who appears on the album as both bassist and co-songwriter) and Mikey Oswalt on drums pounds out toe-tapping beats one after the other, with the steady ferocity of coal miners doing their jobs day in and day out. Then there's Duncan, who leads them all with his "aw-shucks" charisma -- always starting out shows looking almost nervous on stage, then erupting into a flurry of Pete Townsend-esque guitar strums and rally-leading shouts.
But the translation from live performance to CD is where the band's magnificence really shines. The songs are put together with an intricate tightness, something you can really appreciate as a music fan -- especially when Nathan Pitts lends a hand on pedal steel and banjo. But at the same time they have a carefree attitude, almost as if there's a subliminal message hidden somewhere that tells you to crank your stereo, roll down your windows and rock into the breeze.
The songwriting is absolutely superb. It's simple and thought-provoking without tripping over itself trying to be too complex. There's no pandering to any formulas, just an honest freshness. There are no stereotypical "I'm from the country" anthems, no cookie-cutter love songs.
There's just the boys in the band and their music. Boys who don't take themselves too seriously -- as evidenced by songs like "I Don't Smoke Dope With Satan (Since He Left Me at the Mall)" -- but still know how to settle in and delve into heartfelt efforts like "The Death" and "Virginia (State Park)" with a seamless ease.
In the end, you won't want to take this one out of your CD player until you wear it out. The play count on your iPod will climb and climb until you know every word by heart. You'll eagerly anticipate their every show until you realize the soul Shooter Jennings was talking about may have been sacrificed in Music City, but it still lives strong in bands like Blaine Duncan & The Lookers."
Tuscaloosa Teeming with Music
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“This song is called ‘Memphis,’ it’s about Nashville.” With those words, Blaine Duncan and the Lo...“This song is called ‘Memphis,’ it’s about Nashville.”
With those words, Blaine Duncan and the Lookers went from extremely solid to amazing last Friday night as they opened for Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires at the Mellow Mushroom.
Duncan’s words expressed the mix of clever banter and great rock that cemented a phenomenal weekend of music in Tuscaloosa, the type of musical weekend that happens more often in this city than anyone would expect.
In a column by my comrade Morgan Dowdy, he labeled Duncan alongside contemporaries like the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood. So imagine this performance as DBT with a more aggressive stance on cultural issues, like the dire state of popular country music.
After the performance, Duncan just went to get a drink, no pretension about the endeavor. He might even jokingly suggest that the drinking gives him his familiar haggard voice, and it’s true that whiskey can do a number on the vocal chords. (Or both of these things were just made up. Don’t sue me, Blaine, for ruining your vocal secrets.)
He even hyped the hell out of the Glory Fires over discussing his own performance when I talked to him very, very briefly. I’d consider that humility, myself.
Self-titled Album Reveals Duncan's Dark, Humorous Songwriting
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After three years of playing shows around Tuscaloosa, Blaine Duncan and the Lookers have finally rec...After three years of playing shows around Tuscaloosa, Blaine Duncan and the Lookers have finally recorded an album. Recorded by Lynn Bridges in Tuscaloosa and mastered by Alex McCollough in Nashville, the album revolves around Duncan's songwriting. A high school English teacher by day, Duncan sings a unique Southern prose that is both dark and sharply humorous.
The result is a collection of songs that will never ride the waves of radio or garner attention from any big-time record executives, but that won't bother Blaine and the Lookers; they would need auto-tune and hair gel for that.
Duncan's voice is an unorthodox one. The virtue in the vocals is the sincerity with which they are delivered, both lyrically and physically, not in the singer's vocal range. Duncan distances himself from the mainstream on the album with lines such as 'those people on ‘American Idol' don't look anything like me' and 'they try to convince me Kenny Chesney's a big star/I don't listen to country radio anymore.'
Duncan jokingly describes his music as 'country-rock power-slop,' which is actually a pretty good description. Although it is far from sloppy, the banjo, pedal steel guitar and heavy power chords create a sound that The Drive-By Truckers might resemble if they were a little brighter and used fewer minor chords.
The string bends and catchy hook on 'I've Got Nothing' makes it an immediate favorite and the pedal steel on 'Pills' will please even the most fundamental country music fan.
Country-Rock Bands to Play Mellow Mushroom
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It is not unheard of for patrons to be asked to pay a cover charge when local groups play in Tuscalo...It is not unheard of for patrons to be asked to pay a cover charge when local groups play in Tuscaloosa. However, it is a little more uncommon for those paying patrons to get something to take home with them.
When local groups Blaine Duncan and the Lookers and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires take the stage at 10 p.m. tonight at Mellow Mushroom, concertgoers who pay the cover charge will get a Blaine Duncan and the Lookers CD to take home.
“Sure, I’ll [give a free CD to those who pay the cover],” said Blaine Duncan, front man for Blaine Duncan and the Lookers. “I have no problem doing that. If people are willing to pay a cover, I’m willing to give them music to take home.”
Opening the show will be Duncan and his band. The group has been together since February 2007, though lineup changes have made Duncan and lead guitar player David Phillips the only remaining original members left in the group.
“The original drummer sort of got the band together after hearing me play a songwriter night at the Mushroom in 2006,” Duncan said. “We sort of put the band together after that, and we’ve had some lineup changes, which is pretty normal.”
The current lineup for the band includes Duncan on guitar, harmonica and vocals, Phillips on guitar, Adam Ridgeway on drums and Kendall Rich on bass guitar and backing vocals. Duncan describes the band’s sound as “country-rock” and “along the veins of Ryan Adams or Lucero.”
Duncan also plans on playing some new music during the show at Mellow Mushroom.
“We have about three songs that are pretty new,” he said. “We’ve only played them a couple times as a full band. In fact, we’ve played them two times as a full band.”
After Duncan and the Lookers play, experienced guitarist, singer and songwriter Lee Bains III will play with his band, the Glory Fires. The Birmingham native is involved in several different groups, including Arkadelphia, Duquette Johnston’s Rebel Kings and the Dexateens.
“I’ve been working with Blaine and booking him for two-and-a-half, three years,” said Shane Lollar, the booking agent for the Mellow Mushroom. “It’s a newer lineup, but they’re still a good local rock band with a good following. And Lee Bains is the guitarist for the Dexateens, and the Glory Fires is his side project. The Glory Fires are scary good. It’ll be a real good night of full-on southern rock and roll.”
Duncan considers himself a huge fan of Bains and his work.
“I’m also really looking forward to Lee Bains,” he said. “His band is just awesome, and it will be a real treat to play on a stage with him. He’s a really nice guy and a really good musician.”
The country-influenced rock group is made up of Bains on vocals and guitar, Justin Colburn on bass, Trey McLemore on guitar and Blake Williamson on drums.
The show starts tonight at 10 at the Mellow Mushroom on University Boulevard in downtown Tuscaloosa. The show is open to those age 19 and up, and there will be a $5 cover charge.
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Blaine Duncan and the Lookers have recently released their self titled debut album. The songwriting ...Blaine Duncan and the Lookers have recently released their self titled debut album. The songwriting is such that you want to listen to every song again and again until you know all the words, ready to sing along at the next live show. The production value is perfection capturing every tone, from vintage guitar wails to the killer drums and of course the pedal steel and banjo bringin' out that extra bit of twang. The tightness of the group is solid. It's an overall free feeling that is true southern folk rock. Lovin' the energy and lovin' the compositions of this band! Go catch a live show or pick up a copy of the album today!
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"Not too many high school teachers can say they have stood on an amp and shoved a guitar through the..."Not too many high school teachers can say they have stood on an amp and shoved a guitar through the ceiling of a bar. Actually, not too many high school teachers can say they have played music in a bar.
Blaine Duncan is not your average high-school teacher.
For almost a year now, Blaine Duncan has been the lead singer and guitarist of a loud rock band. The Lookers play in dim, smoky bars. They play in bars where the crowd walks through them to get to the bathroom. And they play until the bar shuts down.
So to see Blaine Duncan standing on a brightly lit stage with only his acoustic guitar and harmonica was a different kind of experience. Add an 8:30 p.m. start time and a seated audience, and it just felt odd. But after Duncan strummed the first chord to 'I Don't Smoke Dope With Satan,' both he and the audience felt at home in the Greensboro Room of the Bama Theatre. After all, Duncan began his musical career 10 years ago playing old folk standards at open-mic nights around town.
'It took me a little over a year with a loud rock band before anyone would sit down and listen to my songs,' he said.
Duncan is not ready to give up his band for the life of a troubadour though.
'There were times when I wanted to turn to one of the guys onstage and just smile at them,' he said.
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers formed in 2006 when Duncan met Ne'er-do-wells drummer Mike Oswalt at The Mellow Mushroom's open-mic night. The two bonded over admiration for each other's music. Duncan recruited bassist Ryan Akers one night at Egan's and guitarist David Phillips answered a flyer Duncan had posted around town.
The band booked its first show at Little Willie's in February 2007. The Lookers were the opening band on a bill that included The Ne'er-do-wells and Here's Your Shampoo.
During the early days, Duncan made countless phone calls looking for gigs. He sent e-mails to anyone who would listen. Now things are a little different. Blaine Duncan and the Lookers often headline at Egan's; their next gig their is a little more than a week away, March 15. They've played a couple of shows at Speakeasy in Birmingham. The Lookers will share the bill once again with Birmingham band Arkadelphia.
'That's one of my favorite bands,' Duncan said. 'And you can quote me on that.'
Duncan said the band is always eager to share a bill with other bands whether they are the opening act or the headliner.
'Lately we call ourselves the quintessential opening band,' he said. 'Which is probably a good thing because we can get sloppy after 40 minutes anyway.'
Duncan's writing is a little more orderly. His songwriting was sharpened by years immersing himself in folk music. Duncan echoes the giants such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. His lyrics are observant and often humorous, with lyrics offering a different perspective from most rock ‘n' roll songs:
'I don't think certain people should be in government/ They're not worried about the issues, just the money and lobbyists/ They seem to have it made and I can't even pay my rent/ So I don't think certain people should be in government
— from Duncan's 'I Don't Smoke Dope With Satan.'
'I wanted to change these three chord folk ditties into rock songs,' he said.
And he did just that. Duncan's lyrics may be inspired by folk music, but the Lookers do not sound like a band you would hear at a '60s protest. Duncan sounds like a Southern Paul Westerberg. The Lookers' guitars chirp back and forth over a shuffling rhythm section. Everyone knows The Replacements should have been from the South anyway; now Tuscaloosa has its own version.
Each member is busy with work and school. Duncan said the band is looking forward to summer when they all have more time for music. They plan to record their first full-length album over the summer in Tuscaloosa. Duncan said the album will be much different from their previous work.
There have also been some recent changes within the band. Local musician Ham Bagby has joined the Lookers on guitar. Duncan said Bagby has always been an 'honorary Looker,' but now it is official.
'It's another tone and therefore another layer for listeners if they want it,' Duncan said. 'It makes it a lot louder.'
The people who squeeze into the little, dark bars to hear Blaine Duncan and the Lookers play music on Friday nights would not have it any other way."
Tusk Local Music: Video Interview of Blaine Duncan & the Lookers
A video interview featuring Blaine Duncan & the Lookers and live footage.
Blaine Duncan: One of Druid City's Finest Musicians
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Blaine Duncan accidentally introduced me to Tuscaloosa’s music scene. Back in August 2009, I was ass...Blaine Duncan accidentally introduced me to Tuscaloosa’s music scene. Back in August 2009, I was assigned to write a story about a band that I had never listened to before. The band was called Blaine Duncan and the Lookers, and I was to be given a CD and then write a story within a week, adding an interview to the mix. Needless to say, I was nervous as hell.
Even in the manufactured form of an interview, it’s hard to fake liking music. You either enjoy it or you don’t, and it tends to show to the artist if you don’t like his music.
Eighteen months later, I can admit in the honest company of this paper that I feel Duncan is one of the finest musicians this city has right now. Those 18 months proved to be enough time to where I can feel detached enough to admit that.
Duncan released an album with the Lookers in 2009, a debut record that shockingly holds well today. That sounds facetious, but an accelerated culture doesn’t tend to breed lasting achievement.
If anything, “I Don’t Smoke Dope with Satan (Because He Left Me At The Mall)” rings truer with the divisive announcement of Kenny Chesney performing at the new Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. In the song, Duncan derides Chesney in fiery response to the massive popularity of so-called “pop country,” the genre producing Taylor Swift’s singles and Carrie Underwood’s down-home good looks.
Duncan’s strength has always been his songwriting, even if credit belongs to the men behind him. However, even compared to 18 months earlier, at least two of the members (drummer Mikey Oswalt and lead guitarist Ham Bagby) have left amicably. The band’s lineup — lead guitarist David Phillips, bassist Kendall Rich and drummer Adam Ridgway — is the most constant it has been in months, but Duncan’s really the centerpiece.
Duncan’s haggard voice leads every song, and his feelings are usually present, even when he readily admits that he isn’t the song’s protagonist. I remember overhearing a person say that, “the music is great but the singer’s voice sucks,” in reference to the Lookers live, and I never found that comparison fair. Then again, I realize that the tattered Southern life that is the theme of Duncan’s solo and band work may just hit me more.
After all, punk rock is filled with loads of terrible singers and loads more of great songs. While Duncan would describe his work as a more energetic jolt of country, rebellion is one of the universal punk rock tenets we as a culture still have. It is not broken by the presence of technology, but by hating our dads and the egregious behavior of our surroundings.
Duncan’s voice could sound like Yoko Ono or William Hung, and the songwriting and music would still come out because the voice really doesn’t matter. The haggardness adds to the performance, no doubt, but great songs are also great songs. They tend to be hard to screw up.
That alternative culture and mix of desire for the awesome parts of the past without the bullroar of that same past will always stay a universal theme of great songwriting that hits a certain group of kids and adults. And Duncan hits that vein in spades.
Music "Inseparable" from Blaine Duncan
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" Blaine Duncan got his name from rock 'n' roll. Well, maybe that was Jeff Tweedy in the Wilco song..." Blaine Duncan got his name from rock 'n' roll.
Well, maybe that was Jeff Tweedy in the Wilco song "Sunken Treasure." In any case, Duncan is one of Tuscaloosa's local songwriters that is keeping the spirit of music alive here in town.
Duncan, who graduated from the University in 2000 with a degree in English, is now a graduate student in the department of education. Even with his schoolwork, he said he still makes time for music.
"Music is inseparable from who I am," he said.
Duncan, the youngest of three siblings, said he grew up in Sulligent, in the northwest part of the state. Some of his first memories of music include singing old country songs by Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Also, he said he remembers listening to an 8-track by The Eagles because it was the only one that would work. While he says that he is not so fond of The Eagles now, he remembers the times in a positive light.
Blaine said his early memories of music also involved his brother's records.
"I think that my brother's musical tastes rubbed off on me until a certain part in my life when I started digging for my own particular tastes in music," he said.
Duncan's interest in music continued as he got older. He saved his money one summer and bought a set of Pearl drums at the age of 16. After his big purchase, he started a garage band with some friends. They actually played some shows, including his high school talent show. While Duncan said the students loved them, he said that the teachers did not feel the same way.
"We were so rock 'n' roll," he said. "At least, we were trying to be."
Duncan finally picked up the guitar at 21 years old. He plays the guitar left-handed even though he is right-handed. While this may seem peculiar, he said that it just felt natural.
Paul Hanninen, a sophomore majoring in English and a songwriter, noticed Duncan's different style of playing.
"It changes the way the rhythm feels," he said. "It is more complex, yet very subtle. It's hard to imagine learning how to play that way."
Hanninen met Duncan at Songwriter's Night at Mellow Mushroom, which is held every Tuesday. He said that his first impression of Duncan was that he was very friendly.
"He made it a point to introduce himself to me," Hanninen said.
Duncan said Songwriter's Night is great because it is like getting to see 12 different shows. He also said he learns a lot from each musician that takes the stage.
Meghan Holmes, a junior majoring in accounting, first saw Duncan perform at Songwriter's Night. She said you could tell Duncan really cared about the other performers and respected them.
"Blaine has a lot of respect for music," she said. "It's really refreshing."
It was at a Songwriter's Night in September that Duncan remembers as being his proudest moment as a musician. He said it was one of the most respectful audiences he had ever played to.
"They laughed at all the right moments," he said. "They really seemed to enjoy themselves."
Holmes said she liked the way that he referenced old songwriters and that he had a good knowledge of music. She remembered he made a reference to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie in a song, one that only someone who listened to the two artists would know.
"If you are somebody that appreciates music, you appreciate his music more," she said.
Holmes said she was also impressed by Duncan's stage presence.
"When he's up on stage, you know he is there," she said.
Lindsey Hutchens, a sophomore majoring in chemical and biological engineering, also saw Duncan perform at Songwriter's Night. She said Duncan really captured her attention.
"I had a ball that night," she said. "His songs were hysterical."
Duncan, who describes his music as a work in progress, claims he is still a "virgin" at songwriting. He said he just started writing songs about two years ago. He said he started writing songs to ease the pain of life and celebrate the hilarity and absurdity of it. Duncan said while he may need work in some areas, he is a decent songwriter.
"I get the point across that I want to," he said.
Duncan likes his rock 'n' roll loud, dirty and greasy. He said when you come home from a show and need to take a shower, you've been to a good show. While he could not define rock 'n' roll in a concrete manner, he had another way to define it.
"I'm not sure I could tell you," he said. "But I could tell you when I hear it."
Duncan's music can be heard at www.myspace.com/blaineduncanmusic."
That Tuscaloosa Sound
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"Mike Oswalt remembers the first time he saw Blaine Duncan. Oswalt, a Northport native, had just mov..."Mike Oswalt remembers the first time he saw Blaine Duncan. Oswalt, a Northport native, had just moved back from Austin, Texas, and was looking to get back into the Tuscaloosa music scene. He was at Mellow Mushroom upstairs bar for singer/songwriter night on a Tuesday in 2006 when Blaine Duncan entered the room.
"I noticed when Blaine walked in the door. Actually, I think he was wearing that same jacket and sunglasses, and it was at night, if I remember right," Oswalt said.
Duncan stepped onto the stage with his acoustic guitar, slipped off his shoes and began to play a song now referred to as "Untitled." It is a song about the Tuscaloosa music scene that name checks every band from The Dexateens to Ham Bagby and the Siege. After those three minutes, Oswalt was sold on Blaine Duncan.
"It seemed like everybody knew him when he walked in. He just had this kind of energy about him," Oswalt said. "Just on the merits of that song I was like, 'Man I've got to be in a band with this guy.'"
What Oswalt did not know is that Duncan was also an admirer of his work on drums for the band The Ne'er Do Wells. In fact, Duncan was so much of an admirer that he thought Oswalt was joking when he asked if Duncan wanted to start a band.
"I thought I'd be an acoustic player my whole life," Duncan said. "But I always said if I started a band I wanted that drummer from The Ne'er Do Wells."
With a drummer on board, Duncan set out to find a bassist and lead guitarist.
One night at Egan's Bar, Duncan was watching a set by Baak Gwai with Ryan Akers, whom he knew from singer/songwriter night at Mellow Mushroom. During the set, Duncan decided to ask Akers if he could play bass.
"I said, 'Could you play this?' and he said, 'Yeah, I could probably play this,' so I said, 'Do you want to be in my band?'" Duncan said.
The answer was yes.
Shortly after, Duncan posted fliers around town searching for a lead guitarist. Duncan was looking for someone diverse but with a specific style.
The first person to call Duncan was David Phillips. The two talked about tone, guitars, setups and music for almost an hour despite Duncan not being "a phone person."
A connection was made that night over the phone. There was only one more thing to settle between Duncan and Phillips.
"I said to him, 'Hey, I like to cuss, and I like to drink. Is that going to be a problem?' He said no, and he's been with us ever since," Duncan said.
The band was complete.
Settling on a name
Most newly formed bands have problems booking gigs or writing enough songs to fill their set. Duncan, Oswalt, Akers and Phillips had a different problem. Their first gig was booked and they had plenty of songs to play, but they still had not settled on a name for the band.
They sat around and came up with countless names only to see each one fall flat. Oswalt recalled some particularly bad names the band thought of like Baker 19 and Blaine Duncan and the Virgin Destroyers. It was a night at Egan's that once again provided a little help.
Oswalt and local musician Ham Bagby were talking one night at the bar about names for Oswalt's band. Bagby, who Oswalt said has a great sense of humor, suggested the name Blaine Duncan and the Lookers. After a text from Oswalt to Duncan, the name became official.
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers had officially joined the group of Tuscaloosa bands that Duncan originally sang about on that Tuesday night at Mellow Mushroom.
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers played their first show at Little Willie's in February 2007. They were the third band on a bill that included Tuscaloosa bands Here's Your Shampoo and The Ne'er Do Wells. Despite being the opening act, the band was overwhelmed by the support.
"We don't have fans. We have friends," Duncan said. "They seem to like it because the same friends keep coming back.
"Either that or they're just really great friends."
Since February, Blaine Duncan and the Lookers have played shows all around Tuscaloosa. The band seems to have found a home at Egan's, though. Duncan, Oswalt and Akers said Egan's is their favorite spot to play or hear music in town.
"I just feel at home there," Duncan said.
Focusing on the song
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers don't practice. You won't find them holed up in someone's basement or garage five nights a week perfecting songs.
They just don't seem to have the time.
Duncan is a student teacher at a local school. Akers is a full-time student. Oswalt has a full-time job and is married. Phillips attends law school in Birmingham.
Phillips could not be at the interview for this story due to a prior engagement in Birmingham. Duncan said the band's long-distance relationship with Phillips has not been a problem, though. Phillips comes to town early the day of a show and learns any new songs Duncan may have written, he said.
"He's the kind of guy that doesn't need to practice at all," Duncan said. "He is our sound."
With virtually no practice, Blaine Duncan and the Lookers just get onstage and play their songs. There are no tricks or illusions with this band.
"We may be one of the few bands in Tuscaloosa that focuses on the song," Duncan said.
Duncan's talent for songwriting is what attracted Akers to join the band.
"He's a Tuscaloosa poet," Akers said. "He talks about stuff that people can't put into words, but Blaine somehow does it."
After Duncan has worked out most of the song, he brings it to the rest of the band. From there, Oswalt, Akers and Phillips fill in and transform a three-chord acoustic song into a full-out rock song.
The one-month itch
A lot can be learned about each member of the band during a two-hour conversation with them.
For example, Duncan said he isn't fond of speeding tickets.
"It's like throwing money up a hog's ass," he said.
Oswalt used to be in two bands called Dirty Old Men and Porcelain John.
"The songs were awful, but the names were great," he said.
Akers said he thinks Tuscaloosa doesn't do enough to support original music.
"You have to love music to be here and write original songs and go out and play them," he said.
The most important thing to know about them is that if they are not playing shows, they are not happy.
"We get this itch if we haven't played in about a month and start calling each other," Duncan said.
Though they are addicted to the stage, the band still gets a little nervous before each show. Oswalt compared pre-show jitters to being nervous about a first date. Duncan took the analogy one step further.
"You're thinking, 'Will she put out or will she just give me a kiss and a hug?'" Duncan said. "And most of our shows, she puts out."
There is not a better way to describe this Tuscaloosa band's full-out assault of Southern rock and pop. The band's loud guitars, sparse drums and soulful bass definitely "put out."
While Blaine Duncan and the Lookers does not have a show scheduled, next month will still be busy for the band.
They plan to record their first full-length album during Christmas break and schedule some shows for the upcoming year.
Duncan said the album will be recorded in Tuscaloosa using his money. The band has about 17 or 18 songs to choose from.
The songs that will appear on the album have not been determined, but Duncan said he knows he wants this album to be different than the band's past work.
"I think some people might be disappointed, but I don't care," he said. "It's what I want to do."
If that sounds like Duncan might be tiring of Tuscaloosa, think again.
"The Tuscaloosa music scene is like a family, and I feel like the youngest of the siblings," Duncan said."
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers: Country Rock Greats
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"Blaine Duncan never thought he’d be the frontman for a rock band. “I never thought that I would be ..."Blaine Duncan never thought he’d be the frontman for a rock band. “I never thought that I would be in a band. I always considered myself an acoustic guitar player and not a very good one. But, it came together fairly well,” he says. But since forming last summer and going through numerous lineup changes, Blaine Duncan and the Lookers have established themselves as an act to be reckoned with in the Tuscaloosa music scene.
Playing, as the band likes to call it, “country-rock power slop” the Lookers bring together familiar sounds and relatable lyrics with a disarming intensity to create a modern brand of southern rock. It’s music for the angry, disillusioned everyman. “Inspirations for my songs come from things like being broke, worries about the end of the world and how we’re driving that along—and women,” Blaine says. What makes the music really grab the listener though is the ability of the band—Mikey Oswalt, Ryan Akers, and David Phillips—to sonically support the themes of Blaine’s songs with the right mix of melody and noise.
“I’m a pretty temperamental guy,” Blaine says, regarding one of the Lookers’ earliest shows when none of the equipment seemed to be working. He got so angry he went to turn up his amp as loud as possible. “I wanted the feedback to reflect my fit…what happened was this brilliant wall of noise that filled the entire room. We’ve been bringing that kind of noise to all our shows since, but in a less angry and more fun way.”
Even if the lyrical themes of confusion and frustration in the face of love and modern life might seem like inevitable downers, there’s nothing about a Blaine Duncan and the Lookers show that isn’t fun. Blaine--speaking of Mikey Oswalt, the drummer—says, “You can actually hear him smiling, even if you can’t see him. It’s in every lick.”
This fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude that comes off as high energy “power slop” can be attributed to the bands influences ranging from David’s love for bluesmen such as Buddy Guy to the most visible of the band’s influences: Tuscaloosa’s own The Dexateens. Blaine’s aggressive tone and staggering stage presence reflects the Dexateens same belief in and commitment to carrying on the grand tradition of loud, beer-soaked rock and roll.
“I took a lot of my ideas about tone and guitar tricks from those guys in the Dexateens,” Blaine says. Mikey has also borrowed much of his style from the Dexateens’ drummer, Sweetdog. Openly owing so much to another local band who--by most accounts--have made it big in the world at large, do Blaine Duncan and the Lookers themselves see that kind of success in the future? “I have no idea what the future holds for any of us,” Blaine says. The guitarist, David, already commutes from Birmingham; so distance, Blaine explained, would not be a problem should any of them move. “I am very ready to see if any other towns will be open to us as T-town has been.”
Even with his own name as the one up in lights for every Blaine Duncan and the Lookers show, Blaine always brings it back to the band and the collaborative creative process: “I can see us doing the same thing that we do now as a band: I write some things, put it on a recording, and get it out to the guys. I never tell them what to play. I sometimes tell them an emotion or feeling I want to evoke, but that's it. They always nail it.” It’s this ability to work and create as a unit that brings a high energy to every Lookers song, both the fast-paced burners and the slow ballads. “I don’t want anything to happen to that energy,” Blaine says, “so I think we’ll stick around for a while.”
With shows upcoming at the Mellow Mushroom and at Egan’s over the course of the next month, there are plenty of chances left this summer to check out Blaine Duncan and the Lookers. Be ready to see and hear a group of friends who use rock and roll to express their passions and concerns about life and love while having a great time just being themselves. As Blaine said about his band, “It’s truly a great group of guys. I wouldn’t trade any of them for any other musician."
Blaine Duncan & the Lookers
"Free-spirited Southern rock and roll with a fair dose of twang, blues, and a sense of humor."
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers have a catalog of over 60 original songs and can play anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours comfortably. Blaine Duncan and the Lookers are an original act and do not play cover sets.
There are no upcoming dates at this time.