Blake Thomas
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Blake Thomas

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"Blueheels and Blake Thomas: Anachronistic Anthems from Wisconsin's Finest"

Madison, Wisconsin's Blake Thomas and Robby Schiller are as well known for their drunken escapades (like nearly drowning together after plummeting through the ice into Lake Monona, wherein Otis Redding perished) as their music. Their latest albums—Schiller's second with his group Blueheels, and Thomas's fourth solo effort—should change all that...

Thomas's "I Don't Want Your Heart, I Want Your Liver," a highlight of his new Flatlands, is a glorious addition to the canon of wry country odes to alcoholism. But the world's world-weariest 25-year-old never hits his stride more emphatically than when immobilized by despair, as on "Please Cash This Check for Me": Throwing out the rhyme and meter rulebooks, he recalls with heartbreaking vividness a real-life moment of abject desperation. Sung with resonant soulfulness, the evocatively melancholy title track ought to become the Midwest's national anthem. Being Wisconsinites, both Thomas and Schiller are maddeningly resigned to entertaining fellow dumpster-divers on the same old local beer-and-pizza circuit (in Blueheels' case) and giving fingerpicking lessons while waiting for the Big Time to come looking for him (in Thomas's), but these two heartland albums will make you proud to be American in this last woeful summer of Bush & Cheney.

*Read the article in its entirety here:
http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-08-12/music/blueheels-and-blake-thomas-anachronistic-anthems-from-wisconsin-s-finest/ - The Village Voice


"Blake Thomas Wants Your Liver"

Maybe it was better we didn't know. How life-threatening our stress levels that frigid Tuesday night in early March if we'd known how close we were to losing one or both of our most notable young musicians!

Over the course of their weekly two sets each at Mickey's Tavern, Robby Schiller and Blake Thomas had, as was their wont, kept their whistles very wet — so wet, in fact, that they wound up not at the house on Ingersoll Street they share with other musicians and dumpster-divers and dogs and girlfriends and folksingers, but at B.B. Clarke Beach on the shore of Lake Monona, on whose frozen surface they decided to cavort. And what glorious drunkards' fun they had, at least until the ice cracked and Robby plunged into the hypothermia-inducing water.

How Blake managed in his own condition somehow to yank him out, and then, ignoring every red light on the way, never exceeding the speed limit by less than plenty, to get him home and into a hot shower is anyone's guess. In the end, though, the balance sheet showed one pair of boots, Robby's, lost to the lake, but one ripping yarn acquired by both.

And the possibility of a non-posthumous release of one excellent album, Thomas' Flatlands, on which you're rarely more than a couple of bars from an acute observation, both gorgeously written and soulfully sung.

There's a car in flames by the side of the road

Well, it looks like any minute now it might explode

I'd love to help but I wouldn't know what to do

It's kind of the same way I feel about you

"I Don't Want Your Heart, I Want Your Liver" is a glorious addition to the canon of wry country odes to alcoholism. But Madison's best country singer/songwriter never hits his stride more emphatically than when immobilized by despair, as on "Please Cash This Check for Me," in which, throwing out the rhyme and meter rulebooks, he evokes with heartbreaking vividness a moment of abject desperation.

And every word of it true. "I was living in Austin. I took my car in to be fixed. It was going to cost more than I had. I found an old check from back when I'd given guitar lessons and took it to the Western Union office."

Daunted by the emaciated 24-year-old's appearance — he was drinking too much at the time to be very attentive to personal hygiene — the woman behind the glass hesitated to oblige him. "I spent half the morning running back and forth to where I was living, trying to get her the phone numbers she needed, like my former employer's, but he wasn't around when she called." Thomas eventually got his money without having to wait the usual three days only because the woman took pity on him, and decided to accept his self-description as A Good Man.

Kindness is the currency of the free and the poor

There's nothing in this whole wide world that she can't afford

Blake Thomas grew up in a one-story white house wedged between cornfields in Carver, Minn., half an hour south of the Twin Cities, and remembers an idyllic boyhood of running through the fields catching bugs with his elder brother, of eating rhubarb raw. He was in second grade when his schoolteacher parents, who'd wed as 19-year-olds, divorced. In third grade, he began to play the saxophone, and in so doing got closer to a little girl on whom he had a crush. His interest in the instrument served him once again his sophomore year in high school, when a pair of senior girls befriended him because of his proficiency on it.

"Being accepted not only by women," he remembers with a shy smile, "but older women! It was great!" He began to play the guitar.

The next year most of his new friends left for college, and he started all over again socially. His relationship with his closest friend revolved around their getting high together in the friend's basement, or with his friend's mom. His grade-point average plummeted. His mother was concerned. His interest in the sort of electric blues that Eric Clapton played led him to discover Mike Bloomfield, which in turn led him to Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. "After I heard that, it was pretty much it."

A group of older fellow students recruited Thomas to be the singer and songwriter for the Drake Physics Project, most of whose shows were at the local Lutheran church. "Our saxophone player was on the church board, so he had the key. We hung out and drank communal wine. But it got me out of smoking a lot and selling pot." He played standup bass in community jazz bands and pit orchestras.

After a brief stay at a community college where his literature teacher assigned books he didn't like, Thomas moved down to Chicago. He lived near White Sox stadium and, because he was too young for bars, played coffeehouses, most notably Burkhart's Underground, run by a giant with a dreadlocked waist-length beard and tales of having photographed William Burroughs. He was getting $30 per show, and audiences liked him. "At 19," he chuckles, "I thought I was awesome. I'm a lot less confident now that I know what I'm doing!"

He moved to Milwaukee and played between punk bands in underground basement shows. When the scene started to go haywire because of the burgeoning popularity of heroin, he moved to Duluth, where he worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. Then he thought he'd go to Boston and "be the next Bob Dylan." He'd buy himself $3 worth of breakfast at a diner, get high, and then play six hours in the subway, earning up to $10 an hour. He hobnobbed down there with a violinist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and resisted the attempts of drunks to get him to play Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle."

It was in Boston that Thomas wrote the first of his songs he thought were really good, but disgruntlement with the Boston coffeehouse scene — "everybody was way too supportive of each other" — and love inspired him to move next to Minneapolis. He liked his parents being 30 minutes away, and disliked the girl he'd imagined himself in love with turning out to be a suicidal alcoholic.

"There are only so many shouting matches you can have on a staircase with somebody threatening to slash her wrists before you realize, 'This probably isn't a healthy situation.'"

He fled back to Milwaukee, where he was miserable "living in a shitty cold attic with spiders and drinking my mind away." He got beaten up, relieved of $3, and left for dead walking home from a party. He thought maybe he'd give Madison a try.

Thomas arrived on the first day of 2004, bought a computer and recording software with money he'd managed to squirrel away, and formed a band, the Downtown Brown, with himself as singer and songwriter. They moved into a house on Monroe Street together and, over the course of a year, recorded an album, Real Like Theater, in between establishing themselves as favorites at Luther's Blues. But then, just before their album was about to be completed, a key member declared himself tired of life below the poverty line and abandoned music for Internet development. But Blake landed on his feet, forming a trio with a pedal steel guitarist and the Brown's fiddle player, and securing a Monday night residency with two fellow musicians at Brocach.

"I loved playing there. We were treated well, and even paid well."

He was also giving guitar lessons and felt financially stable for the first time ever. After a year and a half at Brocach, he recorded his 40 Minutes album in three days, less than a hundredth as long as the first album had taken. In "Kaitlyn," a distillation of a great many Dylan love songs (and "The Times They Are a-Changin'"), and "Seahorses" it contained two tracks of rare beauty.

Two weeks before he was scheduled to move to Texas — "Whenever I'm any place too long, I get wacky, and I wanted to see where Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt had played" — Thomas fell seriously in love for the first time. Once down in Austin, though, he learned that the object of his affection had decided to reconcile with her old boyfriend in Nebraska. He spent the next month "getting obliterated, drinking all my money away" until his friend Josh Harty, another Madison musician of note, later to become a member of the Ingersoll Street household, rescued him, taking him on a grueling self-booked two-month tour.

Lacking the funds, at tour's end, to return to Texas, he moved into local music booster Kiki Schueler's basement for six months, and eventually got himself booked at both Mickey's and the Crystal Corner, where he regularly performs the songs of others with his (and Harty's) band the Classic Tawnies. A few weeks after he and members of the Blueheels moved into the house on Ingersoll Street, he did the bulk of the recording of Flatlands in a single day and declared himself "in a really good place mentally for the first time in a while, reconnecting with people from my past, saying sorry for being such a fuckup."

Not, of course, that he's repudiated alcohol-fueled up-fucking. "I love drinking," he says, "though I certainly don't want to wind up like [his hero, country singer] Townes Van Zandt, who pretty much drank himself to death. That would be a bitch.

"Mostly I do it to attain pleasure rather than escape pain, though I do find life kind of boring. If there were a good reason to quit drinking, I would. But unless you're losing jobs and losing friendships, I think you're probably okay.

"We don't get angry when we drink. We just do really dumb, life-threatening shit, like falling through ice, which is sweet in the sense that it gives me a story to tell. I know it's a dumb way to look at it, but if I didn't have a true story to tell, I'd feel like a fraud."

The instrumental accompaniment on Flatlands is as rote as it is deft, and melodic interest is very sparse indeed, perhaps surprisingly so given that the composer is a musically literate multi-instrumentalist. That, though, turns out to be by design. "I worry that a pretty melody would distract from what I'm singing. I love a good tune, but I'd rather listen to Tom Waits anytime."

Thomas finishes the second of the two PBRs he's brought along for self-fortification to an inquisitor's home, runs a surprisingly tiny hand through flame-colored hair, and admits, "I want to get out of town. In Austin every Saturday afternoon you can see Merle Haggard's old Tele-picker Red Volkert at the Continental Club. Every night of the week you can go see something fairly mind-blowing. But in Madison I very rarely see anything that makes me think, 'God, I need to get my shit together!' It's nice here, but I don't feel challenged to do better."

He looks accusingly at his two empty bottles and shakes his head. "I'd quit playing music in a second if I thought I could be happy doing something else."

-John Mendels(s)ohn on Friday 05/16/2008
- The Isthmus


""40 Minutes" CD Review"

Thankfully, 40 Minutes runs to almost fifty, and not one minute is wasted. The title of Blake Thomas’s second release comes from its penultimate track, a sweetly strummed waltz that like every effort here is a near-flawless balance of excellent musicianship, his gorgeous, occasionally shiver-inducing voice and smart songwriting. In fact, the first two qualities are so often more than enough that the third frequently gets overlooked. He’s in full Nashville Skyline mode here, tossing off lines like “My head is a house I’d be ashamed to take you home to” (“Head is a House”) and “She staggers up stairwells in sun-soaked clothes” (slow burner “Kaitlyn”) like afterthoughts. There’s a perceptible quiver in his voice as he sings, “When I saw a shooting star / No idea what to wish for at all” (from “Shooting Star”); you don’t know if it’s because he has everything or nothing.

Chris Boeger on upright bass and Scott Beardsley on drums have the sort of telepathy inherent to a seasoned rhythm section and they are the rock-solid anchor of the disc. Their proficiency gives the rest of the band room to stretch. “I Have Captained My Heart” finally gives Shauncey Ali, excellent throughout, a chance to really fiddle, you know, like there’s one made of gold on the line, though his very worthy competition in this case is Adam Davis’s heartbreaking pedal-steel guitar. A steady rollin’ steam engine of a song, it could be a lost cut from Josh Ritter’s recent Animal Years. The track “Satisfied” finds Thomas echoing Steve Winwood’s “While You See a Chance” in both melody and lyrics. “If it’s all around you, take it,” he counsels over the shimmery violin/pedal-steel combo.

Thomas plays it straight for most of the disc, but track thirteen, “Smoke Break,” finds him expanding a bit. A backmasked mumble flows into a melodica-and-pedal-steel haze as Thomas sing-songs a rhyme about wet matches and the perfect woman. A chorusless exercise, the end of each line is protracted in hypnotic fashion, which initially disguises a killer punchline: “Her body was an hourglass,” he observes before adding, “She was perfect to look at / But one half was empty all the same.” Ouch. Just over two minutes long, it has the quirky charm that made “Matt Ladish is on Fire,” his contribution to the 14 Songs in 28 Days compilation, so ridiculously entertaining.

Thomas is moving to Austin, breaking local music-lover and MAMA voters’ hearts, but he might be wise to take these songs on a tour of Ireland sometime. The similarly folk-leaning Ritter’s massive popularity there eventually bled over to the States. Like many Europeans, the Irish seem to appreciate our Americana more than we do. - Rick's Cafe


""Real Like Theater" CD Review"

"Each tune is carefully crafted, focusing on the intricacies of intertwining instruments as well as the poetics of the lyrics... Perhaps most distinctive of those pieces is the voice of Blake Thomas. Like Robert Plant or Eddie Vedder, Thomas creates a sound I fall victim to every time. It takes only one note to recognize the voice and realize I need to hear more." - The Badger Herald


"Other Snippets of Praise"

"Somber, weary, honky-tonk folk-rock that should suit lonely drinkers as well as anyone itchin' for an old-timey bar brawl." -The Onion

"Iowa produced one of the country's great folk/roots singer-songwriters in Greg Brown, and folks like Blake Thomas and Josh Harty are proving that Wisconsin can develop the same kind of talent." -The Isthmus

"Intoxicating" -Thomas Burns (Local Sounds Magazine)

"Thoroughly kick-ass." -Peter Mulvey

"Better than the Packers" -Rebecca Kraft

"I listened to your cd all the time right before I went to prison." -That guy at the bar

"While I don't know Blake's music, he sounds like a punk to me - an immature smartass." -An angry citizen, mother and teacher
(The Isthmus, 5/30/08)

- Everybody


"Awards"

2005 - Best Male Vocalist
(Madison Area Music Awards)

2006 - Best Folk/Bluegrass/Americana Album & Best Folk/Bluegrass/Americana Artist
(Madison Area Music Awards) - MAMA Awards


"Mad Town triple threat invades Beaner's Central"

An acoustic guitar doesn’t necessarily make one a folk singer — or at least that’s what Blake Thomas tried to tell us.

“The funny thing is, I never really listened to straight folk music — like the Joan Baez school never really appealed to me,” he said in a phone interview from his adopted hometown of Madison earlier this week. “It’s always kind of funny talking about writing folk music because I always listened to more blues and country-blues and country. But you put an acoustic guitar in somebody’s hands and [apparently] it’s folk music.”

It’s been something this Chaska-raised songwriter has struggled with for some time. Although he’s joked that at one point in his life he wanted to be the next Bob Dylan, he only stumbled upon Duluth’s most famous native son because of a chance printing error.

“I picked up the guitar when I was about 15,” explained Thomas, who played the saxophone for much of his educational career. “At the time, I was listening to electric blues stuff, like Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and whatnot. I went into the record store to find more Mike Bloomfield albums, and I found this one in this big book that was ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ — which, of course, turned out to be the Bob Dylan album that he played on.

“I brought that home having no idea what I was getting into. I thought it was going to be a blues record when I put it on. But that’s when I decided I wanted to be a songwriter.”

Life course forever changed, Thomas headed east.

“I spent the next four or five years just kind of moving about the country, expecting that [Laughs] a record label would just come and hand me large wads of money,” he joked.

After stints in Chicago and Boston — and, for that matter, a summer in Duluth working as a housekeeper at the Buena Vista Motel — the blues-rock aficionado settled on Wisconsin’s capital city.

“A lot of people I’d met over the years who had been great players happened to be living here,” Thomas said. “The great thing about Madison is that it’s still kind of a small town — which is also part of the downside. But for me, having lived in Chicago and Boston … I love playing the cities, but I really don’t love living in a city that big.

“I think that’s why a lot of folks tend to gravitate here.”

One such similarly minded citizen is Josh Harty, a North Dakota-raised musician with whom he often tours and performs.

“At this point, we don’t play downtown a whole lot anymore, as far as around the campus area,” Thomas responded when asked what the scene in Madison, a notorious party town, is like for the singer/songwriter set. “In the last few years, it’s really changed; there just aren’t venues downtown to play.

“We’ve found with some of the areas that are just a mile or two outside of that downtown area, there are some — I don’t know what you’d call them — artsy neighborhoods that are cropping up with bars and coffee shops, things that do support what we do.”

Going back to Madison or Mad Town’s feel-good-all-the-time demeanor, he and Harty have found one way to work the system: by playing in a cover band.

“It’s a good way to make some money without, you know, working at a gas station,” Thomas joked.

As the Classic Tawnies, they perform everything from Merle Haggard tunes to more mainstream stuff, by artists such as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. While it’s a far cry from his traditional, lone-troubadour fare, Thomas has been known to let loose on occasion. One prime example is his decidedly soaked-in-gin gem “I Don’t Want Your Heart, I Want Your Liver.”

“I usually get a pretty good reaction to that one,” Thomas said with a laugh.

On the flipside, another staple of his solo sets, “Seahorses,” is about as romantic as they come.

“It’s funny; I get asked to play that at weddings quite a bit — which is great, but to me that tune is about … it actually came from a short story by Oscar Wilde where he was talking about the idea of Shakespeare’s muse,” he explained. “… It’s more about these people who aren’t necessarily part of your life anymore but are still there because you’re playing songs about them.

“... I’ve always had trouble writing straight fiction.” - Duluth News Tribune


Discography

(2008) Blake Thomas: Flatlands
(2006) Blake Thomas: 40 Minutes
(2005) Blake Thomas & The Downtown Brown: Real Like Theater

Photos

Bio

"Sung with resonant soulfulness, the evocatively melancholy title track [Flatlands] ought to become the Midwest's national anthem." -Village Voice

Thomas is currently touring behind Flatlands (2008), his third studio release. The Isthmus calls it "a must for country and folk fans" and picked it as "country album of the year." It rides on the heels of Thomas' two previous releases: 40 Minutes (2006), "a near-flawless balance of excellent musicianship, his gorgeous, occasionally shiver-inducing voice and smart songwriting." -Rick's Cafe; Real Like Theater (2005), the winner of Best Folk/Bluegrass/Americana Album at the 2006 MAMA awards... Thomas, born in Minnesota, literally worked his way up from the bottom when, at 19, he moved east and began his career busking in the subways of Boston. He spent the following years traveling and grinding through the club circuit while while sharing the stage with Leon Russell, Greg Brown, Pieta Brown, Peter Mulvey, The Honeydogs, Holly Golightly, Ben Taylor, Tom Russell, Jon Dee Graham & others. Thomas currently lives in Madison, WI.