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SP Clarke – Two Louies Magazine

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

March, 2004


Never Too Late - The Burrmans
Back in the mid-to-late ‘70s, the Burrmans were Hurrman Burrman: who were among an elite few country rock bands (Seafood Mama, Wheatfield and Triggers Revenge were some of the others) to dominate the local club scene. Hurrman Burrman were a show band in the truest sense of the word, whose roots went back to junior high school in Grant Pass, Oregon, where the four founding members, bassist Steve Vincent, drummer Jim Sanders, guitarist Smiley Brion and drummer Al Klassen first conceived the band back in 1976.

At their peak, the Burrmans regularly held forth on the weekends at the more influential local clubs, including the Last Hurrah and Euphoria. Moreso than their counterparts, Hurrman Burrman had a looming presence from one end of the state to the other a claim which none of the competition could make. Their stage shows were legendary: a muscular cast, which included two drummers (only one kit, Klassen and Sanders alternated behind the kit and adding conga percussion) and a pedal steel guitar player backing Vincent and Brion, with all four founding members providing dense, Dead-inspired vocal harmonies (all four took the lead vocal duties from time to time, though Brion was more or less the front man). Beyond that, Klassen was quite proficient on the harmonica, which lent another dimension of color to their sound.

But most spectacular of all was the appearance within their stage show of “Johnny Smash and the Marijuana Brass,” whose take on the Johnny Cash songbook was raucously over the top. Donning sombreros and serapes, Vincent, Sanders and Klassen would also act as the Marijuana Brass, punctuating Brion’s Smash interpretations with sloppy horn (Sanders played trombone, while the other two played trumpets) interjections, while continuing to play their regular instruments as well. Their somewhat vulgar, riotous version of Johnny Preston’s ‘50s hit “Running Bear” was also a crowd-pleasing institution, as well.

As the ‘70s came to a close, musical tastes of the public began to change. Sensing the shift, Hurrman Burrman retired, firing their original pedal steel player and replacing him with Ron Stephens- a member of Hank Rasco’s Wasted Rangers, when Johnny Koonce more or less took over the band, calling them the Distractions (for whom Stephens helped to engineer their first, locally produced recordings). With Stephens on board, the band briefly became Sleeper, before embarking upon an extended USO tour of military bases across Asia, which, while lucrative, did nothing to further the bands’ career.

Upon returning stateside, the band essentially broke up, for all intents and purposes, to pursue (with the exception of Sanders, who has toured as a sound technician with some of the biggest acts in show business) careers outside of the music business- although they still occasionally got together for various events and functions. In 1994, Al Klassen died suddenly, at the age of forty, leaving a void within the band, which is still strongly felt today.

Here, we find the band (which includes vocalist Stevie Mercer) and a host of guests, recording the album of original material which they had been threatening to record twenty five years ago. For, back in those days, the Burrmans were primarily a cover band, playing the songs of notables such as Jackson Browne and New Riders of the Purple Sage, among many others. Often, they dredged up chestnuts, such as Tex Williams’ “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” (which he co-wrote with Merle Travis, who also wrote “Sixteen Tons”); while peppering their sets with the occasional original composition. Here, all thirteen songs are band penned.

The album kicks off with a couple of songs written and sung by Smiley, “Mighty River” and “Waterfalls.” The former is a country inflected ballad, reminiscent of Mike Nesmith, where Smiley’s voice resonates like that of Roy Rogers or Clint Black- while Stephens provides soaring pedal steel interludes and Mercer the high vocal harmonies. “Waterfalls” is a rocking number with a snakey. low-string guitar line, ala Steve Miller, and with Smiley’s vocal evoking Bob Weir of the Dead and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Vincent’s “The Story” is steel guitar-ladened vehicle for air-tight three-part vocal harmonies. Stephens’ “Fallin’” captures the vocal blend of Crosby, Stills and Nash, circa “Suite Judy Blue Eyes.” Smiley’s turn with “Jackie,” a Cajun-flavored gumbo, changes the pace- with guest keyboardist Atillio adding concertina-like punctuation, over the syncopated beat.

Vincent’s lovely “Take A Chance” hearkens back to Marty Balin’s “Comin’ Back To Me” from Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow; with rich vocal harmonies embellishing the sonic landscape. A real winner. Meanwhile, Smile’s “Cadillac” is a Weir-like shuffle with Little Feat-like undertones, nicely augmented by Mike Walker’s lively Hammond B3 interjections. The Little Feat-like feel continues with Smile’s “Relentless Love,” a song that would seem right at home in the repertoire of Lyle Lovett.

Mercer’s take on Vincent’s beautiful “November Rain” demonstrates a Linda Ronstadt-like feel, while the song itself reaches back to Patsy Cline’s rendition of “Wayward Wind,” written by Herb Newman and Stan Lebowsky. Another gem. A funky Little Feat feel informs Vincent’s “If You Don’t Love Me,” with longtime band associate Willie Warwick adding sprightly fiddle in the turns. Vincent’s “Weak In The Knees” is most certainly evocative of Steve Miller.

Warwick returns for Smiley’s “I Hope He’s As Good,” which features all of the elements that make for a classic Hurrman Burrman number, with great solo trade offs between Smiley on acoustic guitar, Warwick on fiddle and Ron Stephens on electric guitar and pedal steel guitar, and tight three-part vocal harmonies. Similarly, Brion’s “The Bridge” captures all of the aforementioned, prototypical elements that are Burrman.

The Burrmans have changed surprising little since their heyday twenty five years ago. Their sunny optimism and tuneful musicality are still everywhere rampantly evident on this project. Despite the loss of the indefatigable Al Klassen, the Burrman’s toil on into their fourth decade as a band, with all their most winning attributes still very obviously in tact.

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