In 2013, Mobile’s own, The Mulligan Brothers, a quartet comprised of veteran musicians Ross Newell (guitar/lead vocals), Gram Rea (fiddle/ mandolin/viola/harmonica/vocals), Ben Leininger (bass/vocals) and Greg DeLuca (drums/vocals), released their self-titled debut album. After its release, the band quickly gathered a legion of dedicated fans on the local level. But soon their sounds word would spread beyond The Port City.
In 2014, they played to a very enthusiastic crowd at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where their debut album shot into the “Top 10 CD sales” at the festival’s merchandise booth, earning them fans from across the country. They have since ventured into a number of states including New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
Now, The Mulligan Brothers are preparing to introduce the hometown crowd to their sophomore effort, “Via Portland,” at a sold-out pre-release party at the Joe Jefferson Playhouse Wednesday, Dec. 10. While a record release show may seem more at home at one of the city’s bigger or more traditional music venues, DeLuca explained that Ross Newell’s experience playing the Joe Jefferson Playhouse for the “Port City Rising” concert factored into the decision. For The Mulligan Brothers, the capacity and ambiance of the venue provides both a listening room and concert experience for both the band and the audience.
“We like the 320 capacity there, so we liked the fact that we could get a good size crowd in there but nothing that’s going to be too crazy or overwhelming,” DeLuca said. “It seemed to be a perfect fit.”
For the creation of “Via Portland,” the band chose musician/producer Steve Berlin. Berlin is best known for his work as a member of the band Los Lobos, but he is also known for his production work with acts such as Deer Tick, Backyard Tire Fire, Buckwheat Zydeco and Leo Kottke. After a mutual friend passed on a copy of The Mulligan Brothers debut, Berlin quickly expressed interest in working with the quartet.
Berlin’s interest came at a perfect time when the band was making plans for their sophomore effort. The Mulligan Brothers loaded up the tour bus and journeyed to Portland to enter the studio with Berlin in the production chair and Jeff Saltzman manning the console.
When they entered the studio, they envisioned the final product would be a continuation of the sounds and vibes of the first album. However, Berlin and Saltzman had different plans. Whereas the band took more of a co-production role with their debut, The Mulligan Brothers decided to let Berlin take the reins for “Via Portland.”
According to DeLuca, Berlin was skilled at adding “the little nuances” that took 11 songs and bonded them together into an album. DeLuca said the band was also impressed with Saltzman’s ability to capture an accurate representation of the band’s instrumental and vocal qualities. The Mulligan Brothers’ time in the studio was educational and evolutionary. Berlin’s guidance allowed the band to add undiscovered depth to their tracks. Even Berlin’s suggestion of a piano in one song will echo throughout future live performances.
“None of us play piano really, but we’re going to end up adding it to our live show,” DeLuca said. “It’s just stuff that we would not have done ourselves. We’re happy that it happened the way it happened. He pulled some stuff out of us that we just wouldn’t have done. Not because we don’t want it to happen, we just wouldn’t have done it.”
According to DeLuca, the band could not be happier with the final product, and they should be. The sonic depth of “Via Portland” is truly amazing. The first thing that listeners will note is the overall quality and clarity of the recording. In a time when technology has made do-it-yourself recording popular with many bands, “Via Portland” is a testament to the benefits of recording with professionals in a professional studio.
With The Mulligan Brothers’ heavy emphasis on acoustic instruments, Berlin and Saltzman were able capture every strum and pluck with crystalline accuracy. In addition, each song exhibits a rich sound that has been honed by skilled ears.
Fans can expect “Via Portland” to contrast their debut in many ways. However, The Mulligan Brothers’ core sound and musical philosophy still remain. The band captures the listener with the warm harmonies of “Wait for Me.” Newell sets the stage for a story of longing and heartbreak with his acoustic guitar before being joined by a wave of instrumentation from his band mates. The song creates a foundation for an album that is more sonically dramatic and dynamic than its predecessor.
“Bad Idea” displays The Mulligan Brothers versatile Americana sound, which begins with a fusion of guitar and fiddle and spontaneously dropping into a classic country ballad worthy of the honky-tonk. Ultimately, “Via Portland” maintains the down-home sound and heartfelt lyrics that have brought them rapid notoriety, but their time in the studio has definitely had and will have a lasting positive effect in their future work.
After the pre-release party, The Mulligan Brothers will start planning for 2015. DeLuca explained the band will definitely be working to join festival lineups wherever they can and “to go further than this year.” They also plan on getting back to many of the venues they have played in order to introduce old and new friends to the sounds of “Via Portland.”