Two cool
San Francisco punk-folk duo Two Gallants ground their roots in reality.

By Jonathan Zwickel

BACK IN EARLY June, as Two Gallants dredged the emotional depths in front of a packed crowd at the Independent, I was reminded of a telling scene in Don't Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Bob Dylan documentary. The filmmaker catches the 25-year-old troubadour at a breakout performance in England where, with his detached, Wayfarer-ed cool illuminated under a lone spotlight, Dylan delivers a deadpan solo set to a pack of awestruck teenagers sitting on a café floor. They never move or speak, trapped like turtleneck-clad deer in the dazzling beam of Dylan's charisma. Improbably, Two Gallants had a similar effect that night: folks could only squint and stare, their necks craned as they absorbed singer-guitarist Adam Stephens's every phrase. The couple next to me were rapt, swaying arm in arm the whole night. And then there were the college kids up front crowd surfing.

Apparently there's more than one way to experience Two Gallants' punk-folk blues. "The funniest is the split reaction," said a weary Stephens the day after a recent gig opening for indie patriarchs Built to Spill at Slim's. He and drummer Tyson Vogel, both in their early twenties, had interrupted a cross-country tour to jet back to San Francisco for the high-profile spot, and they were pleasantly perplexed at the brash enthusiasm of their hometown fans. "People will be really, really loud and disrespectful while we're playing, and not paying attention, but then, like, give us so much praise afterwards. Then there's the people who'll be paying so much attention and not even acknowledge us afterwards. It's weird."

"On a general level that's why we love touring so much," Vogel said. "It gives us perspective on what we're doing. We're trying to be honest with the music, and it helps to get both reactions."

If the band seem at ease with confusion, it's probably due to the chaotic settings they cut their teeth in. In 2001, having recently whittled the modern anachronism of their sound to a steely, penetrating edge, the duo were determined to cozy up to the city that raised them. So they did what any underage musicians straining to be heard would've done: they threw down sets at rowdy house parties and serenaded the teeming humanity around the 16th Street BART station.

"That was one of our first shows, at 16th Street," Vogel recalled. "It's definitely one of our favorite things to do, but it seems like they're cracking down on stuff like that."

"It's the only time you're gonna have a 30-year-old mother with, like, three children and, like, three nine-year-old G'ed-out kids watching and some well-to-do people passing through going to some nice place," Stephens added. "All this money and energy is put into shows at these bright clubs, and something is just lost in the process. Then you go out and bring music to people, and it reminds you that it's beyond any differences of race or status or background."

Schooled uptown and downtown

You better believe that sentiment – it's real, and it's the underlying force that drives the tragic parables that make up Two Gallants' songbook. Stephens and Vogel exude the hesitant anxiety and chronic modesty of accidental A+ achievers not yet certain of their own brilliance. Despite comfortable Presidio upbringings ("Town School, represent!" Stephens mocked, giving ironic props to their posh all-boys alma mater), these guys have a ken for the bitterness and despair that haunt the down-and-out and the marginalized.

Their debut, The Throes (Alive), plays like a haunted course in American musicology, harking back to the murder ballads of Skip James, the outlaw country of Merle Haggard, and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter's wild frontier balladry. The attention paid to narrative detail raises Stephens's lyrics to poetic heights. He paints a vivid, rustic mythology of petty crime, vagabond longing, and hungover regret, where modern urban coexists with antiquated pastoral. These songs stand at the door of that continuum where the timeless words of Dylan and Guthrie reside. For a couple children of the '90s, proudly raised on supersize portions of Guns N' Roses and Nirvana, their immersion in American roots music sets them apart.

"I was kinda introduced to it by some older people that thought I would appreciate it, I guess," Stephens explained. "I think when you look back and realize the things that have been big in your life, even though I was too young to know why I really liked that kind of music, obviously something in it rang a bell." Rather than simply reviving the ghosts of long-gone blues singers, the duo were intent on staying relevant to their volume-hungry peers. Inspiration came from avant-punk bands like Lightning Bolt and Hella, who delivered the sonic jolt that kicked their sound into the new millennium. But as with the Pogues and Johnny Cash, Two Gallants' punk is full of more heart-on-the-sleeve candor than musical formula.

Stephens and Vogel can't easily articulate exactly what draws them to forgotten forms like the work song, sea shanty, and beer-hall chant – precocious and musically eloquent, they're still not used to talking about their art directly. "It's hard for me to describe songs, because I don't really lay claim to a lot of lyrics I write. I just think they write themselves in a lot of ways," Stephens said. His staunch humility belies the power of the words.

Risky business

Stephens's songs are dark, harrowing tales – at times taking a first-person perspective of a narrator that's clearly not him. On "The Train That Stole My Man," the story of an abandoned mother struggling for sanity in the midst of desperation, he sings, "Now I cuddle to my child, teach him to understand / To take the blows, the to's and fro's and deal with what he's planned / But money's runnin' low you know, no friends to help me through / Just one last thing that I can sell and that will have to do / I feel hunger in my baby's gut, nature's naughty plan / And I feel the rumbling of the wheels of the train that stole my man."

It's a risky literary tact that in less certain hands might fall flat, but instead it delivers chills. A skeletal accompaniment of guitar, drums, and occasional harmonica keeps the focus squarely on the lyrics but also reaches a tempestuous boil. The band are well aware that indie rock's succinct song structure and pop radio's slavish dedication to the beat have driven most lyrically oriented rock into the margins. "It's gotten to the point where it's not only not done a lot, but it's really just not cool," Stephens said.

"At the same time," Vogel countered, "you look back at punk music, and the blues too, and it's very much about just emoting something. The feeling is what's important. That's half of what we do, but bringing it lyrically is important too." Songs like "Fail Hard to Regain" hit both the head and the heart, touching on poetic profundity in the midst of raging bluster: "Once I knew a railway girl her age was seventeen / I gave her all I had to give but the baggage of my dreams / Stole from me the games we play, scorned me for my mask / And if she's gone she lingers on. I beg you please don't ask."

Gallant kindred

Two Gallants see kindred spirits in other word-drunk Bay Area folkies such as Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. "What's neat between those people is they have each other in the music," Vogel said. "They've been doing their things together a lot, and that's cool." He sees an opportunity for community building in their common approaches. "We fall into two different fields of folk music," Stephens cautioned, as Vogel continued, "But there's a side of the music we both understand, and playing a show together to bring those two worlds together would be good for everyone."

That's all part of an as-yet-undefined future. Right now Two Gallants are so in touch with their street-corner roots that they have little desire to pull them up. Even as critical success readies its brass ring, the band are still constantly on the road, still balancing club dates in big cities with all-ages gigs in small-town music stores.

Back on tour, calling from a cell phone somewhere in Maryland, well past 2 a.m., Vogel sounded worn but grateful when I ask about their recent ascent to cult popularity: "Having done all these national tours, there's a different momentum behind each one. Especially this one, with the album out now. But we're still drunk and cold at the end of the night, and we're still doing it on a pretty basic level."

" 'Success' is a big word," said Stephens, characteristically reserved. "I don't really believe in success in a way. It's implying that once you reach a certain level you stop trying as hard. Most important is that we continue doing what we're doing, just making our music and creating."

Two Gallants play with For Stars Sept. 10, 9 p.m., Independent, 628 Divisadero, S.F. $10. (415) 771-1421.