Evan Barber and his band the Dead Gamblers are close to finishing their third studio album at the 340 Creative Group studio that is co-owned by Barber. (Herald staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
Evan Barber & the Dead Gamblers in concert
Evan Barber & the Dead Gamblers perform on the Pine Avenue stage at the 2014 downtown Albany Mardi Gras festival. Barber and Gamblers Blane Johnson, guitar; Austin Lee, bass, and Jeb Tabb, drums, are working on their latest album. They were joined for this performance by Justin Andrews.
ALBANY — Evan Barber remembers the exact moment music became the consuming force in his life. It came, as fate would have it, while he was listening to one of his father’s old records.
“My dad had played Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ for me plenty of times, so it’s not like it was something I hadn’t heard before,” Barber, co-owner of 340 Creative Group and leader of Albany-based rockers Evan Barber & the Dead Gamblers, said before a recent recording session. “But this was different, something I’d never experienced before.
“I was 16, and I’d never had a song overtake me like that. I can still remember what that felt like, how it changed my outlook. That’s when I understood the power of music.”
Barber has since channeled that power to forge his own place on the area music scene. He and the Gamblers — guitarist Blane Johnson, drummer Jeb Tabb and bassist Austin Lee — are among the more accomplished musicians in the Southeast, a powerhouse quartet that will play an eclectic cover or two during a performance (a Paul Simon or Tom Petty tune, perhaps) but is best known for its original compositions.
Barber and the Gamblers are currently working with producer Ambrose Lockerman to put the finishing touches on their third studio album, a disc — also expected to be available on vinyl — set to be released to coincide with the band’s East Coast summer tour.
It’s also an opportunity for Barber and the Gamblers to offer an updated take on some of their best-known earlier material and show fans the direction Barber’s songwriting is taking them.
“I think (the new material planned for the as-yet unnamed album) is the best stuff we’ve ever done,” Barber said. “It’s not as easily accessible as some of the stuff we did earlier, when we really didn’t know what we were doing, but it’s the best representation of where I am as a songwriter and where we are as a band. I’ve grown as a writer, had time to hone my craft. (The new material) is more definitive, more what I was going for.”
The disc, planned for release in June, will also include updated and remixed versions of “Birmingham” and “Ramblin’” from the band’s self-titled first album and “Tape” and “Cigarettes and Candy” from its second album, “Terminal Romance,” which is now discontinued.
“Yeah, when we blow up and start winning all these Grammys, the 1,000 people who bought out the first pressing of that record will have a rare collector’s item,” Barber laughed. “But we discontinued the disc — didn’t do but one 1,000-copy run — because we just didn’t get the sound I wanted on that album. I started the recording with my former band, and it was just a different sound than the one I heard for those songs. We also rushed the album to get it out by a certain date, and I just was not pleased with the results.
“Now that the band has the sound I’ve been looking for, those songs I wrote before sound like I intended them to sound. That’s why we’re putting some of our earlier songs on the new album.”
Barber and the Gamblers find themselves in a pretty good place as they finish up the album that’s being recorded under the working title “Ropes in the Ceiling.” (“That’s something I came up with, but the other guys don’t really like it,” Barber said. “I’m not real big on titles; a song is what it is. I’ve only got names for a couple of the new songs on the album.”) The band is being courted by a couple of independent labels and must soon decide which it will sign with to release the new disc.
“One of (the labels) is bigger and has a much farther reach,” Barber said. “But the other has had success with some bands I know and has a pretty good reputation for distribution. We’re going to look closely at both and decide which one works best for us without distorting the band. No matter what we do, we don’t want to lose who we are.”
While Barber trusts and relies on his colleagues in the Gamblers musically, there’s never a question who is the driving force behind the band. A talented musician and singer/songwriter, it’s Barber’s somewhat enigmatic persona that permeates everything Gamblers — from the band’s songs to its laid-back stage presence.
“I’m not a terribly social person,” Barber said. “I think that’s why there is a degree of the abstract to the songs I write. These new songs have that abstract, but they’re also extremely personal. I was playing an early mix of the songs at home the other day, and (Barber’s wife) Tabitha came in and said, ‘Could you not play that song now? It’s too much.’ I knew I was on the right track.
“I think in the past, I’ve batted around .300 in getting across what I was trying to say. With the new stuff, I feel like I’m up to around .700.”
And so, has Barber written his own “After the Gold Rush,” that one song that has the capacity to permanently change some 16-year-old’s life?
“Nah, I haven’t gotten close to that yet,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “I’ve always felt ‘Tape’ was the best thing I’d ever written, but there’s a song on the new album that probably conveys my deepest thoughts. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer.”