The fact that fans and critics alike struggle to accurately pigeonhole Vancouver Island’s fascinating PUZZLEROOT is evidence enough that the duo is creating something genuinely fresh within the broad church that is contemporary folk music. Elements of country, bluegrass and ‘freak folk’ colour PUZZLEROOT’s sonic palette, but when bundled with a pop sensibility, punk rock ethics and leftfield approach to lyrical content, it is little wonder the band eludes convenient categorization. Indeed, Marian van der Zon (vocals, banjo, slide guitar) and husband Gary Eugene (vocals, acoustic guitar) summoned the band name in acknowledgement of the puzzling nature of their take on roots music.
Dark and humorous, playful and political, PUZZLEROOT’s original material covers a lot of ground. With a foundation of Eugene’s expert picking, van der Zon’s banjo – often played with slide – lead vocal from either, and the uncanny harmonies one would expect of partners in life and art, the songs on ‘Farewell to Gerald Fitzella’ (2009) and ‘Square Pie’ (2012) both charm and intrigue. Delivered as directly or obliquely as PUZZLEROOT’s muse guides them, their lyrical subject matter includes birthdays, ghosts, ants, the afterlife, corporate retail giants, US foreign policy, and that ole devil called love.
Formerly known as GERALD FITZELLA (2007-2009: hence the debut CD’s title), this Cowichan Valley couple draws on a wide range of personal and musical influences when crafting their sound. This is well illustrated in the choice of covers on PUZZLEROOT’s two CDs and in live performance. David Bowie, Gillian Welch, Melissa McClelland and (particularly) Pixies classics are all reinterpreted in Eugene and van der Zon’s idiosyncratic style.
Drawing comparisons with the ilk of The Handsome Family, Colorblind James Experience, Blanche and The Civil Wars, PUZZLEROOT’s music is steeped in, and the natural summation of, the duo’s individual musical histories. Eugene has performed in rock, punk, country and folk bands for over two decades, whereas van der Zon’s background and continuing involvement in sound art goes some way to explain her self-taught, experimental approach to playing the banjo. Although PUZZLEROOT is essentially Eugene and van der Zon, they have performed and recorded with other musicians, most notably with Shelley Brown (upright bass, harmony vocals) and latterly, John Thomas (percussion). But whether as a duo, trio or full-blown folk orchestra, PUZZLEROOT is as happy playing an intimate house concert as a festival stage, and looks forward to every opportunity to do so.
Gary Eugene (vocals, acoustic guitar) is PUZZLEROOT’s principal songwriter. With twenty years of developing his craft in Victoria punk bands Mickey Christ and The Remanes, rock band 96 Tears, alt. country outfit The Hardluck Angels and various folk acts, his wide-ranging experience is reflected in stunningly original, world-wise material. Questioning life’s mysteries, oddities and injustices, as well as ruminating on universal emotions and concerns, Eugene writes with wit, insight and melodic dynamism to produce extraordinary songs inhabiting a musical and lyrical world all their own. An accomplished and powerful guitarist with a complementary vocal range, Eugene is a unique songwriter and musician, widely respected in Vancouver Island roots music circles.
Marian van der Zon (banjo, slide guitar, vocals) would probably baulk at the suggestion that she is a polymath, but as a musician, singer, songwriter, sound artist, published author, book editor, pirate radio activist, community radio programmer and university lecturer, it is unquestionably accurate. Her improvised vocal and instrument work can be found in multi-media project, Meridian. Whether delicately plucked or played with slide, van der Zon’s self-taught banjo technique is reminiscent of 1920s and 1930s blues pioneers, contributing a nostalgic rusticity to the PUZZLEROOT sonic identity. Her vocals are soft, yet powerful, haunting and expressive, and when harmonizing with PUZZLEROOT partner and husband, Gary Eugene, one could hardly squeeze a cigarette paper between them.
Shelley Brown (upright bass, vocals) is a strong and versatile player, well known across Vancouver Island. She has played with numerous bands including, David Essig and Rick Scott, Tuber, Skellig, The Flying Accusations, and Wise Acre. She has joined many more bands in the recording studio, and is an absolute pleasure to have on board. She gives Puzzleroot the third harmony and keeps things grounded.
Gary Eugene - Vocals, Guitar
Marian van der Zon - Banjo, Vocals, slide guitar, Slide Banjo
Shelley Brown - Vocals, Upright Bass
Puzzleroot - Square Pie (2012) Song order
Save Yourself: sci-fi love ballad, vocal harmonies, pop and folk sensibilities
Of the Sun: mediterranean gypsy snake dance
Half a Dozen Decades: existentialist alt-country zen barnburner
History: to all the girls I've loved before, waltz
500 Rivers: folk protest song about water
La Dee Da: gypsy, vocal harmonies, children's song
2012: call and response, optimistic earth ballad
Tin Can: CFL auctioneer life changing alt-country
Five Years David Bowie cover (40 years old) - don't tell Jian
Struggle Factory: death metal for buddhists
All songs by Gary Eugene except Track 2 and 5 (Marian van der Zon) and Track 9 (David Bowie). 2012.
Available for purchase at: CD Baby or iTunes
Puzzleroot: Farewell to Gerald Fitzella (2009)
Gary Eugene: guitar, vocals
Marian van der Zon: banjo, slide guitar & banjo, vocals
Dan Fehr: upright bass
Andy Graffiti: drums, percussion
And special guests Patrick M’Gonigle: violin, J. Douglas Dodd: keyboards, Zak Cohen: electric guitar
Produced by: Gary Eugene & Marian van der Zon, Zak Cohen of Woodshop Recording Studio
Available for purchase at: CD Baby or iTunes
1. Book of Ghosts: dark folk, hints of klezmer & gypsy, metaphysical, driving, upbeat
2. They: blues swing, upbeat
3. From the Sweetness: traditional, vocal harmonies
4. Metal and Bone: traditional, vocal harmonies
5. Blink of Death: philosophical death ballad, folk, beautiful
6. Hail to the Creep slide banjo funk, political commentary
7. Possibilities: upbeat, altcountry, traditional, twangy
8. Country Spiders: dancefloor barnburner, traditional
9. Where is my Mind? altfolk, Pixies cover
10. One Eye folk, sweet ballad
11. Gliding: folk, sweet, melodic vocal harmonies
12. Wall Mart: funky, political commentary
13. Back to the Very Start: edgy dissonant love song
14. Birthday: celebratory & wacky
-- All songs by Gary Eugene except
Track 9 (Charles Thompson, The Pixies) and
Track 10 (Marian van der Zon)
“It’s not puzzling to understand the appeal of Puzzleroot. Instrumentally perfect, fabulous vocals and an eclectic sound for any format,”
-Brad Edwards, Music Director, CKMO, Village 900
"Puzzleroot brings to the table an eclectic flavor in both song selection and performance styling. Their harmonies are spot on and their playing compliments their songs like adding nutmeg to hot chocolate. Yummy stuff!"
-Robert McCourty, Artistic Director, Islands Folk Festival
“The coming-out party for local roots act Puzzleroot will be distinguished by expert, exciting musicianship and its stellar cover of the Pixies' Where Is My Mind?, which should become a staple of the band's repertoire for years to come.”
-Mike Devlin, Times Colonist
“Ghosts in a West Virginia coalmine kidnap the acoustic love children of The Pixies. Haunting, spirited and fun, Puzzleroot's Farewell to Gerald Fitzella, is a weird and wonderful melding of crunchy metallic sounds, string and song: dark and metaphysical in one moment, burning the barn in the next.”
[+ Show ]
“It’s not puzzling to understand the appeal of Puzzleroot. Instrumentally perfect, fabulous vocals a...“It’s not puzzling to understand the appeal of Puzzleroot. Instrumentally perfect, fabulous vocals and an eclectic sound for any format. Another example of the rich, culturally diverse and artistic sounds from the deep talent pool of Victoria, BC.”
Brad Edwards, Music Director CKMO Radio, Village 900
Puzzleroot Review, Music Festival
[+ Show ]
"Puzzleroot brings to the table an eclectic flavor in both song selection and performance styling. T..."Puzzleroot brings to the table an eclectic flavor in both song selection and performance styling. Their harmonies are spot on and their playing compliments their songs like adding nutmeg to hot chocolate. Yummy stuff!"
Robert McCourty, Artistic Director, Islands Folk Festival
[+ Show ]
"The coming-out party for local roots act Puzzleroot will be distinguished by expert, exciting music..."The coming-out party for local roots act Puzzleroot will be distinguished by expert, exciting musicianship and its stellar cover of the Pixies' Where Is My Mind?, which should become a staple of the band's repertoire for years to come."
Mike Devlin, Times Colonist
[+ Show ]
"Farewell to Gerald Fitzella is an innovative folk/bluegrass leaning offering , that has an infectio..."Farewell to Gerald Fitzella is an innovative folk/bluegrass leaning offering , that has an infectious, rootsy, upbeat bounce that a listener will revisit time and time again. This independent release wraps you up in its carnivalesque air and fights to keep you there.
John Roman, Gabriola Radio
Singer/Songwriter Gary Eugene’s vocal delivery sounds effortlessly authentic and the relaxed harmonization with Marian van der Zon can only be struck in the tightest of groups. Applause is also warranted for Marian’s solo lead and intermittent scat vocals sprinkled throughout the disc. Her progressive five string slide banjo and guitar vibrato contribution to the groups voice I must label as unique and dissimilar to any groups I’ve tried to compare.
Songs that shine like, From the Sweetness, They and Book of Ghosts hit me for their lyrical bends, twists, and puzzles; as did, the thought wrenching five minute, Blink of Death track. Country Spiders, Wall Mart and Birthday deliver comedic and/or social commentary interludes that are part and parcel to the carnival mystique. The only copy tune is a flattering rendition of the Pixies, Where Is My Mind? which previously served as the closing theme song in the hit movie, Fight Club.
Have a listen and you’ll be asking, as I did: Is this Really a Debut Album?"
[+ Show ]
"Punk rock moved to the country and bought a farm. And life is good on the farm. Puzzleroot live up ..."Punk rock moved to the country and bought a farm. And life is good on the farm. Puzzleroot live up to their name, blending a broad range of musical genres like folk, alt-country and indie rock with strong social commentary and witty storytelling. And it all melds together nicely on ‘Farewell to Gerald Fitzella’, their debut album. It will leave you stomping your foot and singing along to their tales of love, politics, and protest. But don’t let the anarchy of it all fool you, this album is fun, and Puzzleroot want you to have a good time. A strong debut from a charming West Coast band."
Nicole Green, Producer, MuchMusic
This is smart, witty and off-kilter roots music
[+ Show ]
"This is smart, witty and off-kilter roots music. Primarily a trio of guitar, banjo and upright bass..."This is smart, witty and off-kilter roots music. Primarily a trio of guitar, banjo and upright bass, Puzzleroot sound like Pixies on a relaxing summer retreat and evoke memories of cult acts like Colorblind James Experience."
- The Gilded Palace of Sin, Totally Radio (Brighton UK)
Puzzleroot Set List: Sample
1. LA de da (original)
2. POSSIBILITIES (original)
3. BOOK OF GHOSTS (original)
4. CLAP HAND (cover: Tom Waits)
5. BLINK OF DEATH (original)
6. ONE EYE (original)
7. WHERE IS MYMIND? (cover: The Pixies)
8. METAL & BONE (original)
9. BACK DIRT ROAD (cover: Oh Susannah)
10. STRUGGLE FACTORY (original)
11. COUNTRY SPIDERS (original)
12. GO DOWN MATTHEW (cover: Melissa MeCleland)
13. WAGON WHEEL (cover: Old Crow Medicine Show)
14. TIN CAN (original)
15. ½ A DOZEN DECADES (original)
16. FROM THE SWEETNESS (original)
17. I PROMISE (cover: When in Rome)
18. GLIDING (original)
19. THEY (original)
20. CACTUS (cover: The Pixies)
21. HISTORY (original)
22. MISS OHIO (cover: Gillian Welch)
23. SAVE YOURSELF (original)
24. L&N (cover: Michelle Shocked)
25. ATHIEST FISH (original)
26. FOLSOM PRISON (cover: Johnny Cash)
27. BIRTHDAY (original)
28. ONCE THERE WAS A TIME (cover: Ten Years After)