The measure of any emerging band seeking fame and fortune in America is the ability to survive any number of Armageddon moments on its first major tour.
Or as the Dunwells like to refer to it, their "Lollageddon" incident. The British folk rock group, which plays the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colo., on August 19, already has made quite an impression since hitting these shores in 2011.
Right off the bat, after performing at the Folk Alliance in Memphis, they signed with a U.S. label (Playing in Traffic Records) and recorded their first album, Blind Sighted Faith in June 2011 at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio outside Austin, Texas. This year they won high praise and support from former Rolling Stone magazine wunderkind-turned-movie director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), who eventually went to see them play at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles.
Then came a series of whirlwind appearances at South by Southwest in Austin this March, setting the stage for the launch of a 40-city North American tour that already has included a June stop at Red Rocks, one of this country's best outdoor venues.
"I get goosebumps every time those guys sing harmony together," said Brian Eyster of Planet Bluegrass, the Lyons-based organization responsible for bringing artists of legendary and on-the-verge status to the Folks Festival and RockyGrass in the mountain town north of Boulder, along with the celebrated Telluride Bluegrass Festival. "Of all the great bands I saw at SXSW this year, they were the one that jumped out as having superstar potential."
They even got recognized for not performing at one of the summer's be-there-or-be-square festivals. They got sidetracked at Lollapalooza on August 4, when an approaching storm led to the cancellation of some of the afternoon's acts that included the Alabama Shakes, another buzz-worthy band. The Dunwells considered it a badge of honor, tweeting, "we're the lollageddon club!" (see below).
They still found a way to play -- at the Hilton Chicago on Michigan Avenue, just across the street from the venue in Grant Park.
"Yeah, it was a surreal moment," recalled lead singer and primary songwriter Joseph Dunwell four days later while on the road to Boulder. "We were literally half an hour due to go onstage. And they started taking the speakers down. We were going, 'What's going on?' Then they made the big announcement saying everyone needed to evacuate the whole site."
The Dunwells, which also includes Joseph's older brother David (guitar, banjo, piano), Jonny Lamb (drums), Rob Clayton (bass) and Dave Hanson (lead guitar, pedal steel), performed an impromptu four-song show in a second-floor ballroom of the hotel, where a grand piano was conveniently located. (The Dunwells, from left: Jonny Lamb, Rob Clayton, David Dunwell, Joseph Dunwell, Dave Hanson.)
"All of a sudden a crowd came," Joseph Dunwell said, sounding surprised. "It worked."
The same can be said of all the Dunwells, a group of friends and family who all lived within close proximity of each other while growing up in Pudsey, just outside of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. Now the area mostly known to American music fans for The Who's Live at Leeds album might have another reason to celebrate.
"We used to have a good football team but we don't anymore," said Joseph Dunwell, who's six years younger than his brother. "[Pudsey]'s a nice place. I'm glad we grew up there. A lot of happy memories. Quite a small town; everything's really close. You know everyone."
The Dunwell children got a musical indoctrination from their father John, a Grade 8 classical guitar player. "He never really forced music upon us," Joseph said. "Music was always within the house all the time. He would play his guitar to put us to sleep. Music is naturally embedded in us."
The age difference might have something to do with it, but Joseph believes he and David never developed a sibling rivalry. "We've both got the same goals and dreams and achievements we want to achieve," Joseph said. "And it makes things easier being brothers. Doing it together. There's no game of tug of war. We're just both living in the same barracks, and it's good."
Joseph started harmonizing while watching his brother, then 16, learning to play the guitar and write songs. Hearing Irishman Damien Rice on his debut album O was the reason Joseph said he started writing songs.
"I remember listening to that for the entire year before deciding to be a musician. It was kinda like the turning point," said Joseph, leading him to trace his steps backward to artists such as Oasis, Counting Crows, Springsteen and Dylan, before finally starting "to learn singing techniques from the greats," Van Morrison and Ray Charles.
The four other members of the group that formed in 2009 are singers, too, providing spine-tingling harmonies on anthemic numbers like "Follow the Road," which brings to mind the best of Crosby, Stills & Nash while upping the ante with stirring electric guitar runs.
While in school, David Dunwell became best friends with Clayton, who is Lamb's cousin. Hanson and Joseph Dunwell developed a best friendship while living only a few miles apart. "We know each other inside out," Joseph said.
Got all that? If not, listen closely to the John Porter-produced Blind Sighted Faith, which is being re-released on August 28. Three new songs -- "So Beautiful," "Dance With Me" and "Borrow Me" -- replace two of the originals, "I Want to Be" and "In the Moment."
"The new songs kind of bookend the whole album, really, and just give that extra oomph to it," Joseph said.
And while the first two songs -- "I Could Be a King" and the title track, both written by Joseph -- should hook you immediately, the upbeat melody of "So Beautiful" is guaranteed to do the trick, particularly if you're trying to romanticize your significant other.
"Obviously now that we've recorded it, we've started playing it live," Joseph said. "And people are coming up, saying, 'What was that song?' That's a good sign that people are wanting to buy the track before the track is even out."
Their rising-star trajectory seemingly is following the path established by another English folkie favorite (and look where Mumford & Sons are today), but the Dunwells would rather avoid such comparisons.
"Mumford & Sons are such a good band," Joseph said, all but adding the "but" word. "We write good songs, we write good melodies. I think a good song will stand out on its own. It's not who you are or who you're connected with. I just think they're really good at what they do and we believe that we're good at what we do."
Even though they were protected by a massive stage, Mumford & Sons still were able to shine during a torrential rainstorm at Telluride last year. Parallels to U2 at Red Rocks in 1983 were unavoidable, putting Mumford & Sons one up in career-defining moments.
The best is yet to come for the Dunwells, who survived the bedlam of 14 gigs in three days at SXSW that Joseph likened to a "military mission" while being herded around liked sheep in a jam-packed Suburban.
Yet, the Leeds-based lads will always have Chicago. They experienced "Lollageddon" -- and lived to tell about it.
Onstage With the Dunwells
During our interview, Joseph Dunwell answered a few random questions related to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and performing live.
Members of the band performing at the Folks Festival: Joseph Dunwell (vocals, guitar); David Dunwell (vocals, guitar, banjo, piano); Jonny Lamb (vocals, drums, percussion); Rob Clayton (vocals, bass); Dave Hanson (vocals, lead guitar)
Go-to-instrument in concert? Taylor 414ce. "I would pick an acoustic guitar because you can kinda get away with everything with an acoustic guitar. You can put an interpretation on a song with just one acoustic guitar and so I'd probably pick up that and sing one of my own songs. We just got an endorsement from Taylor, so that's given us some nice new Taylors for this tour."
Go-to cover song in concert? "Well, we kinda grew up playing cover songs around the local Pudsey scene. If I had to pick a cover song, I'd probably pick 'Georgia' by Ray Charles or Radiohead's 'Creep.' "
If you had to choose: Plugged, unplugged or a cappella? "A cappella. The magic that we're able to do is quite special. There's no reverb, it's just a natural sound that's coming out and seems to work."
What was your worst festival experience, either as a performer or spectator? "We've not played many festivals. We played some fall festivals, one in Amsterdam, two in the UK. We almost played Lollapalooza, but that was probably the worst experience in that that we didn't get to play Lollapalooza."
Dream collaborator in concert? "At this moment in time, just because I'm listening to him, I'd certainly want to collaborate with Van Morrison. I've been listening to his Moondance album. Oh, and Glen Hansard. I'd like to collaborate with Glen Hansard. I'm a big fan of his as well. His new album (Rhythm and Repose) is amazing."
Publicity photo by Piper Ferguson.
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