"Country rock with gusto...Kelly Knapp is a standout."
THE DARLINGS ®: Press
Different strokes Bleu’s hooky rock and the Darlings’ country LOOK AT VIRTUALLY EVERY BOSTON COUNTRY ARTIST who’s ever been worth a damn and they’ve all got one thing in common. From ’60s figures like Barry Tashian and John Lincoln Wright (who started out in the Remains and the Beacon Street Union respectively) to national star Jo Dee Messina (who did her cover-band time in the area before hitting Nashville) to current twangsters like Kerri Powers and Lucky 57, they all came to country by way of rock. So it stands to reason that the Darlings, who get my vote as the city’s best country act, should have done the most rocking in the past. Singer/guitarist Simon Ritt is a punk journeyman who played for a few years with one of his heroes, the late Johnny Thunders (his early-’80s band Two Saints play back-up on a few of the semi-bootleg Thunders live releases that have turned up lately). Singer Kelly Knapp fronted the Bristols, one of the Boston underground’s first notable all-female bands. She started slipping country songs into Bristols sets around the time she hooked up with Ritt 10 years ago. When they first started playing, the Darlings had a novel musical mix, drawing equally from classic country (Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris) and Gram Parsons and Exile on Main Street–era Stones. This, of course, has since become the standard definition of alternative country — but having preceded the bandwagon, the Darlings remain a few steps in front of it. Their long-overdue full-length debut, New Depression (on the Florida-based Artist Friendly label), features production by Richard Price, who’s played bass for Kim Richey and Lucinda Williams. It’s very much a studio album, with fleshed-out arrangements incorporating pedal steel, fiddle, dobro, and cello, along with loads of guitar by Billy Loosigian, another long-time rocker (from the Nervous Eaters and Willie Alexander’s Boom Boom Band), who joined the Darlings a few years ago. The result would be getting more attention if it came from a more country-associated city. Knapp’s voice was always a grabber, and it’s gotten more sultry over the years. The songs, mostly by Ritt (with a couple Knapp wrote for the Bristols), are as honest as they are hummable. Ritt’s title track is the timeliest and most resonant of the batch, about sticking together through hard economic times. But he says it’s also about his relationship with Knapp, and the fact that they’ve been inseparable for a decade without ever becoming a couple. "I’m glad of that, because if you look at the ones who have become couples, they’ve all broken up — Richard and Linda Thompson, Sonny and Cher. Not to get heavy here, but I could never imagine being so intimate with someone outside of a romantic relationship. But she’s such a warm, sincere person, and she’s got such patience when I start losing my temper. When our voices are in synch and everything sounds just right, we just start soaring. Then she goes back to her husband and I go home to my girlfriend." With a Nashville producer and a Florida label, the Darlings seem to have a stronger following in the South than they do here — they even won a Jim Beam–sponsored band contest two years ago. "That one was pretty funny," says Knapp. "We played in the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville, where they do all the line dancing, and came on after three bands who did the real mainstream, middle-of-the-road stuff. I think there’s a core of people in Boston that really do get it and like us. But it’s frustrating that I tell people I’m in a country band and they still look at me funny." Their punk roots are pushed more into the background now, but Ritt says that Thunders remains an inspiration. "To me there’s an irreverence that someone like Johnny Thunders really symbolizes. I try to never glamorize his self-destructive tendencies, but I saw him as a guy walking a tightrope — some days he was a mess and sometimes he was brilliant, but he was never the same way twice. And of course, he anticipated the whole unplugged thing when he started doing his acoustic shows. So yeah, if he saw what we’re doing, I think he’d dig it." Issue Date: January 9 - 16, 2003
"...this meal has a tangy bite and that spice turns out to be Kelly's strong voice."
DARLINGS ROCK MUSIC CITY They’re a little bit country. And more than a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. They’re The Darlings, the Hub City quintet named after the ragtag, jug-totin’ hillbillies who raised so much hell in Sheriff Taylor’s Mayberry several calendars ago. These days they’re sinking their rock ‘n’ roll roots deep into C&W soil. And distinct blossoms are beginning to show. Momentum. That’s what they call it in music biz circles. It means an act has forward moving energy. Onwards and upwards; that sort of thing. At its center, the band is very much the Simon Ritt/Kelly Knapp acoustic duo — which is exactly how the project started out a few short years ago. Songwriter Ritt, whose rocker roots stretch back to tours with punk icon Johnny Thunders and Knapp (The Bristols’ singer), both deeply ensconced in the Beantown rock circuit, discovered a shared love of country flavored material — something along the lines of the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris Grievous Angel sessions. Something musically well distant from the country schmaltz guys in Sears western shirts turn out in bars mostly Saturday nights. But writes some of the most stirring country-faced tunes you’d ever want to hear. Good solid stuff with high-stepping musical attitude and meaningful, introspective lyrics. Songs like "Into the Wild" and "Halfway Home" and his "Yesterday", a sweet ‘n’ sour western lament called "Dusty ol’ Cowboys". "Yeah, Simon’s songs, well... they’re so good. And we both reach way back to bluegrass stuff... even Irish music going way, way back. We really draw from an earlier source than our rock background," Kelly told me one morning last week. "I think this is really the natural way to go for me." It’s certainly working. With the expanded line-up adding the inscrutable Bobby Bear having his percussive say on the pagan skins. Rik Rolski slipping around the frets of the electric six-string and recently arrived bassist Greg Radawich handling the low end, they’ve had a remarkable run in recent months. They won the country category in the highly regarded Boston Music Awards this Spring surprising many with the ease with which they raced away from the pack of entries — some with far longer track records. Then just a couple of weeks back they took on Nashville as one of five national finalists in the Jim Beam Country Talent Search held at the famous Wildhorse Saloon in that city. An honor in itself. But (and this comes as no big surprise to anyone who’s heard their landmark 4-track CD) what really rocked some jaded observers back on their heels is that they won the whole thing — and by a unanimous score from the heavyweight N’Ville judges. Now they’re being gently courted by record execs. Not a bad little run; not bad at all. "No-one was remotely like us," Ritt told me with a chuckle. "We were loud right out of the gate. But it really went over well. It was very encouraging." Clearly, they flew their freak flags high. They looked and sounded very different from what is currently seen as Nashville chic. Light years from the faux country TNN-type hat acts that dominate the C&W scene today, The Darlings made few discernible concessions to fashion. When Ritt says they were "dressed to the nines", it’s a down and gritty look he’s talking about. No glittering Nudie suits, thank you very much. "I had to laugh," Knapp said. "We were doing a publicity shot and in walks Simon with his cowboy boots and leather pants. And I had this bright orange dress on. Rik had his turquoise, pseudo-Indian thing going on, and Bobby had the loudest, red shirt. We looked like we came out of the circus. I thought ‘What are these people gonna think of us?’ We definitely stood out." I’ve traveled often to see them crowded onto bandstands the size of your thumbnail in virtually every gin mill in Beantown. And in most of the cavernous concert halls, as well. Of course, it’s the tunes that keep us all coming back. But, then, Kelly Knapp could, in all probability, sing the multiplication tables, and I’d sit transfixed. So would anyone with working earholes. Ritt: "I gotta tell ya’... Life gets a lot worse then this. I get to stand onstage and play guitar with a great band and watch Kelly Knapp sing my songs." It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Still going. Playing country-rock in these parts is never an easy task, but the Darlings are staying committed to it. "We hope to play more in Boston," says co-leader Simon Ritt. "We hope to do more shows at the Kirkland, and also at Sally O'Brien's, which has a honky-tonk night once a month." Tomorrow, the Darlings perform at Johnny D's in the 10:30 p.m. slot. If you haven't yet seen them but enjoy a good night of country-rock (with the emphasis on rock), then you're in for a treat. They also feature Kelly Knapp (known for her work in the Bristols) and guitarist Billy Loosigian, a major-league performer, who has been in the Nervous Eaters and is now back with Willie Alexander's Boom Boom Band. Ritt says he's also excited about sharing the Johnny D's bill with the Fritters. "They do a lot of hayride boogie songs and feature Betsy Nichols, who is originally from Nashville," he says.
Artist Friendly Records
This debut showcases many strong tunes. The harmony vocals are sublime; pedal steel ditto, and the drumming is versatile and always workmanlike. Lead thrush Kelly Jean Knapp sometimes strains or sings above her range, but acquits herself admirably on heartfelt hokum like "Ol' Guitar" and her closing, epic lament "Yours for the Asking." Simon Ritt's vocal pitch seems off on "When the Blues Arrived," but he pours his soul into "Another Girl Gone Boys," and the quavery but immensely appealing "A Little Like You." Complaining that country deals overmuch with cheatin' lovers and chemically-induced mania is akin to pricking rock for its macho swagger but I think all good latter-day rock-suffused country ought to at least give a nod to folks like Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, Jim Eanes, and especially Hank Williams. Does old Hank smile down from heaven on songs like "Stoned and Blue"? Indubitably. (And country-rockers like Green on Red would've probably killed to have waxed Ritt's brilliant lover's lament "Juanita.") If you profess to loathe country music you might just consider that it was often good enough for The Beatles and The Stones to admire inordinately. So try The Darlings. I did. And I'm glad.
"This band has the heart and sound as big as the Western Plains."
One of the best things you can say about a country band from Boston is that they don't sound like a country band from Boston. So it is with the Darlings, whose sound is so credibly Dixiefied that you'd swear they've been hanging out in Texas truck stops instead of playing regularly at Club Bohemia. Their approach to country rock harks back to the days when Keith Richards and Gram Parsons were running partners; songwriter/guitarist Simon Ritt (a former rocker with the Johnny Thunders-inspired Daughters) is mighty good at capturing that wasted-outlaw ambiance. And he's got a perfect match in singer Kelly Knapp, whose voice has a natural, earthy twang that makes the stories grab hold. An album from this band is long overdue, but they've at least delivered a four-song EP called Four-Song EP (on their own label), which pulls a few standouts off their recent demo tapes. "Halfway Home" and "Dusty Ol' Cowboys" make good mixes of Ritt's lowdown imagery and the band's honky-tonk heart. On stage they also pull some well-chosen covers out of their hats; they'll be at Club Bohemia this Friday.
"The people who voted The Darlings best country band were casting votes for songs of grit and dust."
The Darlings excel in down-home, old fashioned country twang and honk tonk as evidenced by New Depression, their debut disc. Conjuring echoes of Loretta Lynn dueting with punk-rock band X's John Doe, the groups mainstays, Kelly Knapp and Simon Ritt, soak their songs in steel guitar, fiddle, dobro and even occasional cello and sitar to broaden their pallete. Mostly though they stick to the basics - western swing...rockabilly... upbeat blues...low-key laments as well as other American fare. Who knew depression could be so uplifting?"
The Darlings CD Release Show at Lizard Lounge,
June 7, 2003
"They were gathering dust," quipped Kelly Knapp of the Darlings, early into their set at the Lizard Lounge, "so we thought we should have a CD release show." She was referring to New Depression, the Darlings 2002 full-length debut release on Artist Friendly Records. This was a rare live appearance in the area, but according to Knapp, that's going to change.
The five-piece band features Knapp and Simon Ritt on lead vocals. Both have punk roots: Knapp fronted Boston's all-female band, The Bristols, and Ritt played with Johnny Thunders. So many bands blend elements of electric rock and acoustic country and claim to have unearthed a fresh approach, but this band succeeds in a classic style that sounds both fresh and authentic. I'll take The Darlings buffed & shined or in the rough - this is a country-rock gem - live or recorded. They use "finer grits of harder substances" to achieve a polished sound, all the while remaining edgy, twangy, and exposed.
The opening track on the CD is the hard-luck honky-tonk of "Stoned and Blue" which has an immediate hook:
Trouble found me when you walked through that door.
There goes my heart once more.
It's not the first time, that's for sure.
When the lyrics fall into despair and longing, the music tugs harder, and soars. This is a rock-solid collection of songs - rollicking, toe-tapping fun, and tender - delivered with gusto. Rarely do I find a CD that lives up to a live show, but New Depression does just that.
"Their reputation is growing faster than a truck stop harlot's."
This tune (Dyslexic Heart) was written for a girl named Kelly from Boston to help launch her country music career. Unfinished, it was a bit to cutesy for me. Nevertheless, when Cameron Crowe called, I added the "na na na na's" and he dug it for his film. So I lied and said I wrote it for Singles.
"The Darlings, that's a smashing name!"
"The Darlings...what else could they be called."
"While In Boston I learned as much playing with THE DARLINGS as I did at The Berklee College Of Music."