The United Steel Workers of Montreal have been called “…the quintessential Montreal band…one of the best, hardest working and most loved bands in the city. Possessing a blue-collar charm that’s impossible to fake and a punk-country sound impossible to mistake” (The Hour, Montreal, QC).
It’s a reputation they’ve earned honestly with constant touring, catchy tunes and engaging performances that invariably win over crowds. Their unique brand of blue-collar alt-country is a potent mix of blues, jazz, country and swing, and their live performances are filled out with dry wit, tall tales and some outright lies. It’s a combination that has propelled the group through three albums and two videos, and got them voted Montreal’s #1 Folk/Roots Band.
The Steel Workers released their third album, Three on the Tree, in February 2009, and spent most of last year on the road in support of the record. According to gruff-voiced singer Gern f., “In the last twelve months, I think we’ve been out running the road for say maybe eight of the last twelve. I think we clocked a little over 50,000km on the van which would have been at least three times across Canada, and a European tour thrown in for good measure.”
And now the Steel Workers are on the road again with a dozen dates in the Atlantic Provinces from Saint Andrew’s, NB to St. John’s, NL that will take up most of February. The tour stops in Sydney on Wednesday, February 10 for a show at Governors Pub with Buck and Kinch. Although the Steel Workers have been coming to the east coast for the last five years or so, this will be only the second time they’ve played in Sydney.
“We’ve had two bookings in Sydney so far in the last few years,” explains Gern. “Unfortunately our first show ended up not happening because our ferry got stuck in the ice on our way back from Newfoundland and we didn’t get off the boat until 3am. But we heard from Buck and Kinch, who were our openers that night, that the place was packed and everybody had a great time.”
Their second time in Sydney was redemptive though, when they played the Celtic Colors International Festival back in October.
“We were opening for Tom Fun and the hanger-esque venue had a pretty decent crowd. It really seemed to go over quite well and the festival as a whole was awesome. We ended up back at the Gaelic College and had many beer with many of the folks from around the area. A real nice return to Cape Breton for us.”
And even though it’s February, a month notorious for nasty weather and bad driving, the band is happy to be back in the van and rolling around on the East Coast.
“We have always done well out here. When we first started coming out five years ago, we would do the typical quick turn around of Halifax, Saint John, and Fredericton. But over the years through perseverance and a lot of driving, we have been able to expand that to getting out here for, like, this tour is three weeks. The East is great, right off the bat we got a great response and it just seems to be building every time we come back. We sure like it out here, easily our favorite end of Canada.”
The United Steel Workers of Montreal play music that’s well-suited to East Coast crowds. It’s rambunctious, acoustic-country-punkish music that’s been referred to as “urban hillbilly”, “city-grass”, and “dirty dive-bar country”. And it makes you want to drink and dance and sing along. Their latest cd, Three on the Tree, was recorded as a six-piece featuring Gern on vocals and guitar, Shawn “Gus” Beauchamp on guitar and vocals, Felicity Hamer on accordion and vocals, Matt Watson on electric guitar and vocals, Eddy Blake on double bass, and Chris Reid on banjo, mandolin and vocals, with touches of Hammond B3, fiddle, tin whistle and some horns thrown in for good measure. It’s a winning combination of instruments that blend together nicely and serves their songs well on record.
The playing on Three on the Tree is impressive, but the songs themselves can definitely stand up on their own and they thrive in the raunchier atmosphere of a live show which is important for any band who aspires to longevity. The circumstances of being a working band and living on the road, can take a toll on a band and the Steel Workers are no exception, having undergone some lineup changes since the record was released last year.
“At the moment we are blowing out the five-piece. It’s a little rockier than our normal six-piece event, but we are definitely having a lot of fun with it,” says Gern. “The rigors of last year’s tour have left us missing some old members. We lost Eddy Blake on bass due to marriage back last spring, and he was replaced by the Fabulous Flipper, formerly of the Gutter Demons. Man that guy can wail!”
“This fall had us losing Matt Watson to paternity leave after a wayward tour with the Burning Hell had Matt hooking up with Jill Staveley. Wee Charlie, the off-spring of guitar gods, is doing fine back in Peterborough.” Gern expects Watson to return this Spring, “…as the baby gets a little more self supportive.” Watson, who wrote and sings a couple of songs on the record has been replaced these last couple of months by Steve Brockley, a great guitarist who is a fine songwriter in his right. “Keep an eye out for him,” says Gern. “He leaves on his own tour out this way as soon as we get home in March. Steve just damn well rocks, as the folks who saw us at Celtic Colors will attest to.”
Most noticeably absent is Chris Reid on mandolin and banjo. “Initially this loss was a bit to get over,” admits Gern, “but with the fine guitar work of Mr. Brockley we’ve worked it out just fine. We are still on the search for a new mandolin / banjo player though and when we are out here again I believe the position will be reinstated.”
Not that there are any plans yet to be coming back out this way soon. It’s been a year since Three on the Tree was released and the band is starting to think about making a new record.
“At the end of this tour, we are gonna take some time back at home and really crack down on the writing schedule for a couple of months,” says Gern. “We have a summer festival tour planned starting mid June. We plan on running that through the summer which should take us extensively throughout Western Canada and when we return we are gonna start working on the new album. I think we are gonna try and not rush this next one. The band seems to be chomping at the bit to start working some new material into the set lists and to get Matt back and solidify our line up. It’s gonna be a great year, can’t wait. This year touring Three in the Tree has been fantastic, and I would say the future is, as we say around the Steel Workers bench, ‘more!’”.
Don’t miss the United Steel Workers of Montreal, with special guests Buck and Kinch, Wedneday, February 10 at Governors Pub in Sydney.