The River and the Road goes electric

Road Apples
Road Apples

The River and the Road’s new record kicks in with a statement: this band wants your attention.

The Vancouver four-piece folk-rock group’s recorded history has leaned more to the roots side, with slippery banjo lines and all acoustic instruments. But Headlights, the band’s new LP released earlier this month, starts with fat, ringing electric guitars before dropping into a dusty full-tilt boogie.

“That was intentional,” says Keenan Lawlor, who shares singing and songwriting duties with guitarist Andrew Phelan. “We’ve had the electric in our arsenal for years, even though the record we’ve been selling is completely acoustic. Then again, we do get small and back to the banjo-acoustic thing and really intimate.”

The band started as a rivalry between Lawlor and Phelan at a Vancouver open mic, where they butted heads competing for the crowd’s attention. Eventually they decided to join forces, co-writing the River and the Road’s 2012 self-titled debut. The two added John Hayes and Cole George on bass and drums, respectively, the day of the first album release show—and together the River and the Road has put in long miles, touring across Canada and beyond.

That included a stint in Phelan’s native Australia, where the band stayed with his mom and busked on the street to survive.

“That was three months in very close proximity—that’s when we really got to know each other,” Lawlor says from Ottawa, a tour stop as the band heads west. “Essentially, that was our first tour. We bought a van that broke down the first day—the classic story.”

The River and the Road’s wanderlust comes through on Headlights, 10 songs that ache with the lonely white lines on the highway. Like on the gorgeous, fingerpicked “Coulee (The Prairie Song):” “I dream of getting out of town / Being dragged through the mountains alone.” It gets as loud as it does quiet, honesty and grit in both the peaks and the valleys.

Of course, you never can tell what the road will bring. Like when the band drove the nine hours to Prince George in March to play a show for a televised hockey party. The band played in the middle of the day to a mostly empty parking lot, populated by some families and CBC talking heads.

“It wasn’t any more weird than any show we’ve ever done,” Lawlor says. “It just documented that it’s a strange lifestyle, driving long distance for a decent gig. But, luckily, we enjoy each other’s company enough that even those kinds of shows are fun and funny.”

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