Fresh Start for Mornin’ Old Sport

Oakland has inherited one of Boston's best young folk outfits.

A band at its most stale can be as burdensome as an old relationship. All the weight and despair of meals without conversation or tetchy arguments can spring forth from a stage show whose musicians are tired, bored, or malcontented.

But fresh starts, by definition, make things lively. And that’s why your ears should spring to life to hear that a group has transplanted itself, in good faith, across the country, just to reinvigorate its music in new surroundings. Well, tip your hat to you favorite new folk band: Mornin’ Old Sport.

It’s a Biblical 3,000 miles from Boston to Oakland. On foot, it’d actually take forty days and forty nights to trek. They didn’t walk, luckily. The band’s first two members rolled into town a few weeks ago, with essentially nothing (all their possessions are locked in a Boston storage unit that they can’t afford to ship out). They dug up a rental in East Oakland and began looking for work. Other members trickled in gradually – one stayed longer in Colorado to master the debut album that they had been recording since September. And at the Albatross Pub on Thursday night, the slightly remodeled group was back together, seemingly content, its core members totally, almost cloyingly in love with one another.

The first thing you learn about Scott Nanos and Kate Smeal is that they have a band; the second thing you learn is that they’re engaged. Her voice is pure and antique, crackling with emotion and years of well-spent jazz vocal training. His voice is more amused, beaming as though he’s mulling over a joke that he’s not quite ready to tell yet.

Then you meet Jeff Price – though he’s not a key songwriter, he seems like the silent mastermind. He engineered their recordings at his father’s studio in the Rocky Mountain state, where Nanos says they got their hands on quality gear: “We were playing Forties archtops, Fifties Fender electrics, old tube amps, and all the piano tracks we recorded on a hundred-year-old Steinway.”

The two newest additions — Mike Schlenoff and Pete Calderwood — will flesh out the band’s sound with guitar, keys, and washboard. Also transplants, from Martha’s Vineyard, Schlenoff and Calderwood played in a folk/bluegrass outfit called The Hogstompers, a band that Mornin’ Old Sport ceremoniously “got married to” in a big to-do at a church on the vacation island last year.

Your Grandparents Will Jam to These Tracks, an EP released in August, references a relatively specific era; nestled somewhere in between Dixieland and “post-war” jazz, a term which the Village Voice famous dubbed an “arbitrary roadmap.” As roadmaps go, however, Mornin’ Old Sport is as musically nomadic as its members’ real travels might have you guess. Though the EP’s three parlor tunes would fit squarely into a 1930s cocktail soirée, dig back a year and find a gem like “Cold Secret,” unmistakably echoing Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” or Donovan’s “Catch The Wind.”

As Berklee-educated musicians, their range is unmistakable, and it’s clear that they could go any direction. But their new album is American folk in nearly the most classic sense, even verging on country. Nanos, who’s the first to admit he’s got a bit of an F. Scott Fitzgerald fixation, laughs about how the band has changed:

“[The new record] is even more old-timey than the EP — basically we just keep getting more old-timey as we keep going on,” he said. “Whereas the EP sounds pretty Thirties Jazz Age, this one also has like an old Western swing and bluegrass tinge to it.”

You don’t learn until later (or until you watch their old videos) that there’s one member of the group conspicuously missing. Zebulon Kroll, possessor of the rounded baritone you’ll hear on many tracks, didn’t make it to California. After their five-month recording slog, he jumped ship with a slew of disparaging words about the project. His change of heart is still a bit of a mystery to them.

A few of Kroll’s tunes remain on the debut LP; and they’re undeniably as lovely as the rest. Nanos seems to have nothing but good-natured regret for the way it worked out, and he and Smeal are forging ahead, writing new songs, and planning what’ll no doubt be the classiest wedding you’ll hear about in 2012.


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