By Steve Hubrecht
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The pandemic has hit everybody in the Columbia Valley in some shape or form. Medical workers, businesses, schools and local government have altered most obviously and most dramatically. But, while the changes in other fields may be less overt, they are just as profound for those faced with them. Take the arts and culture scene, for instance, where many performers have had it tough. Local live musicians, in particular, deprived of audiences, have struggled to keep going during COVID-19.  

Fabled East Kootenay folk band, Shred Kelly, has been a mainstay of the Columbia Valley music scene for more than a decade, with dozens upon dozens of shows here. They’ve played every festival and venue you care to name in the Columbia Valley, from Panorama Mountain Resort to Edgewater to Invermere to even a private greenhouse in Windermere. But their show at last year’s Steamboat Mountain Music festival was cancelled, and since then it’s been a hard journey.

How does a band bounce back from a pandemic? And stay sane as the fourth wave approaches?

The answer involves the band’s current ‘tiny concert tour’, which wrapped up last week (Friday, Sept. 10) and which recently brought the band to Ullr Bar. But it also involves a lot of family play time. Picture this: Daughter, her hair tousled and eyes bright, sits at the top of the yellow slide, waiting for Dad, his hair curly and eyes adoring, to clear a bug off the slide. He obliges. She swoops down, smiles and then trots over to go up the slide again. Mom watches on, contently, as her family plays.

A bit different from traditional rock and roll, sure, but a moment that perfectly embodies a band on tour nonetheless. Dad is Tim Newton, Mom is Sage McBride, and daughter is Murphy Matilda Newton-McBride and all are members of Shred Kelly, which after weathering the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is now back touring again.

Yes, that’s right, Murphy goes on tour, and is as much as part of the band as her parents, playing alongside guitarist Ty West, bassist Jordan Vlasschaert, and drummer Ryan Mildenberger. 

Right now, she’s trying to get her balance on the ladder going up to the slide. She leans in, trying to get her footing, searching for her balance. You could say the same of Sage and Tim — enjoying a sunny morning a few hours after having put on a raging good show the night before (with some patrons allegedly dancing on tables). They’re seeking their own balance: family, band, work, life, music. That’s a lot of balls to juggle all at once, but maybe, just maybe —  as Murphy rips swoosh down the slide again — they’ve found the right footing.

If all this sound a little more personal, a little more mature, and a little more introspective that what you’re used to when it comes to Shred Kelly, you’re not alone. And, clearly, you also haven’t listened to their new album Like a Rising Sun.

The band rose to prominence over the past 12 years on the back of a considerable reputation for rip-roaring live shows, full of foot-stomping bluegrass. The ski-bum ethos of the band’s early days was hard to miss in their initial hit songs, such as the banjo-driven I Hate Work. Here in Invermere they’ve developed an exceptionally loyal following of devoted fans, who faithfully buy tickets again and again, show after show. Think of them as the valley’s very own Grateful Dead: live show as experience as business model. Clearly it’s a model that resonates well in many of the Kootenay’s many play-hard, party-hard mountain towns, bringing a level of success that’s the envy of many other regional bands, and which has earned multiple Western Canadian music awards. 

But Like a Rising Sun marks a departure from Shred Kelly’s beginnings, both sonically and lyrically. The band is rocking a little harder than they ever have on this album. The high energy bluegrass is still there, but complemented by different arrangements that lend the music moods not typically associated with Shred Kelly. And even a cursory listen to words finds the songs touching on themes of new life, death, and a search for a more meaningful existence. Listen a bit more carefully still and the emotional meaning behind a seemingly jaunty tune may just catch you unaware, full force, like an auditory sucker punch. 

In short, the album sounds like that of a band – of people — at a crossroads juncture in life, with a bit of the familiar, a bit of something new, and the sometimes-exhilarating, sometimes-unnerving uncertainty all that entails. Put another way: It’s almost as if you’re hearing Shred Kelly grow up right there on Like a Rising Sun, from carefree ski -bums to purposeful parents.

This, of course, is no coincidence. Quite a lot has happened to Sage and Tim since the band’s previous album came out in 2018. In spring 2019, Murphy, the couple’s first child, was born. Then, just a month and half later, Tim’s dad, Bud, suddenly passed away.

“It was a time bomb in our life, these two events, one joyous and one devastating,” Tim told the Pioneer. “We’re both getting older, as so that alone brings a new perspective. Then there’s a birth, and just like that there’s this new person in our life. And almost as fast, there a loss of life. Like a Rising Sun really comes from these ideas. I mean, all these things are happening in our lives, it’s kind of natural that that works its way into our songwriting.”

Tim wrote one of the album’s singles, Roman Candle Eyes, to describe the firecracker-like spark he felt when he first looked into Murphy’s newborn eyes.

“I see so much of my dad in my daughter. Her looks, her personality. It kinds of drives home the connection and that idea of the cyclical nature of life,” he says.

Another song, Take Me Home, at first blush appears to be a jumpy, upbeat tale about Sage and Tim’s life together, with the music video showing them progressing in fast-forward through an evening on their porch. But partway through it becomes apparent that although the video shows Tim and Sage, the narrator of the song is Tim’s dad, Bud, about to pass away, reminiscing and reflecting on events in his life (yes, this is one of those aforementioned auditory sucker punches).

“I kept the song upbeat, because I knew my dad wouldn’t want a sad song written about him. There’s even a bit of a humour in there, in that I’m wearing these hilarious old furry Scandinavian boots that he had, that he just loved,” says Tim. “In the video, you see this family life progress, but it’s in time lapse to make it feel like it’s all running by so quickly, just like life.”

The video for the song, Looking For, follows the separate paths of two adults (one, a pizza delivery man; the other, a childcare worker) living the party-and-outdoors life in a mountain town. The two have grown disillusioned with it and are looking for something more. Eventually their paths cross.

Sage wrote the story as a reflection on the beginning of her and Tim’s relationship, which began not long after the two started playing together in Shred Kelly.

“That is exactly the story of Tim and I. We both lived that lifestyle when we first came out west. And it was really fun for awhile, but I think that’s where some people get stuck. We didn’t want to get stuck, we both wanted to continue to grow as people,”  says Sage. “We’re really lucky we’ve been able to do that, and carve out a life in a mountain town that is sustainable, that we can live indefinitely. It’s not easy.”

The music may be introspective and insightful, and more lyrically complex, but as Tim is quick to point out, the band made sure to keep things from getting too overtly serious, and there is still a lot of the wacky fun that Shred Kelly has made its hallmark.

Take, for example, the music video for Roman Candle Eyes, which brings to mind either an animated version of a Salvador Dali painting or a hallucinogenic drug trip to rival those of Raoul Duke in Fearing and Loathing in Las Vegas. Think hands turning into pizzas, a bizarre bear intently following Tim, babies turning into loaves of bread, and a good number of people running around in giant eyeball costumes, and, of course, plenty of Roman candle fireworks.

As Tim explains, the surreal video was mostly the result of a pretty tight time crunch, COVID-19 restrictions, and a fast-delivery costume website.

“Our record label wanted us to release Roman Candle Eyes as a single. But they needed us to make a music video to do that, and they needed it done in two weeks. But, with the pandemic and all the restrictions, our options for making a video were limited,” says Tim. “We didn’t know what to do. One week went by. So, a bit desperate, Sage and I took a bottle of wine into the backyard, and we came across a website with all kinds of crazy costumes. There were these giant eyeball costumes, which kind of fits with the ‘eyes’ of Roman Candle Eyes. So we thought why not take all the lyrics literally, and get costumes to match. So that’s what we did. The video starts with me fainting just after Murphy is born, and waking up in a dream world, and it just gets weirder from there. It was pretty fun to make.”

The more rock-oriented sound on Like a Rising Sun? That’s partly the result of working with a new producer in Vancouver, and partly a result of how the songs were written.

“The banjo in the past has been the heartbeat of the band, and I let the banjo direct the songwriting that I do, finding a riff, expanding on it, following it, and then adding lyrics,” Tim tells the Pioneer. “On this album, the songs poured out of me on an acoustic guitar. That’s how it flowed out of me. The banjo takes a bit of a backseat on the album, and a lot of the songs came out of me chugging away on an acoustic guitar.”

The end result, Tim concedes, may indeed bear some influence from the grunge rock bands he enjoyed listening to while growing up in the 90s.

“We traditionally get labelled as a folk rock band, but this album definitely leans to the rock side, even to the point that you could call it alternative rock with some folk in it,” he says. “Like a Rising Sun has been nominated for the Western Canadian Music Awards in the ‘rock album of the year’ category. That’s a big change for us, because normally we get nominated for ‘folk album of the year.’ I guess that says something about the music.”

How did the COVID-19 restrictions affect a band that lives to play boisterous live shows? 

“We’re a hard-touring band. Touring has always been our main source of income, and we’ve always kind of relied on reputation and word-of-mouth marketing, so to not be able to tour and play to large audiences for a year and a half, that was hard on us. Especially at the beginning, when nobody knew how long this would all last,” says Tim. “Thankfully we were able to pivot successfully and we have really upped our virtual game. We did a lot of online concerts, playing on the Facebook pages of venues we would normally play, or on the Facebook pages of festival we normally would’ve played at. We did an online Saturday night concert series. It was enough to keep our spirits high, and we learned a lot.”

Tim outlined that the band’s use of technology shot up from never having done a livestream (and not really knowing how to do it) to, by the end of the pandemic, having a room in their house dedicated to live streaming, using green screen, and creating videos with pre-recorded comedy bits. “It became a large production,” he says.

And while Shred Kelly is pleased at their new technical skills, and how they’ve managed to build their brand digitally, they are even more delighted to be back on the road, finally in front of an audience, playing a series of ‘tiny concerts’ (each outdoors and abiding by current COVID-19 regulations).

“It will be really interesting to see what’s possible in a post-pandemic world in terms of technology, and that’s something we’ll continue to try and grow, but our hears will always be in our live shows,” says Tim. “It’s unbelievable to be playing to people again. There were a lot of tears (at the Invermere tiny concert), in the crowd and in us.”

Back on the road, yes, but the last time Shred Kelly was on tour, a year and a half ago, Murphy was in tow as an infant What’s it like now touring as a family of three with a toddler?

“There’s definitely some challengers. You have to keep a toddler on a schedule, and that doesn’t change just because you’re touring with a band,” says Sage, with a laugh. “You’ve got rehearsal, but you need to make sure you have enough snacks on hand. In the mornings, the other band members sleep in a bit, go for breakfast and coffee. But we’re in the hotel bathroom, frantically doing the day’s meal prep. It’s fun, for sure, and I’m so glad we get to do it, but you’ve got to be ready.”

As to what the future hold for the band, “right now, it’s take it as we go. We’ve still got COVID-19. It’s hard to plan too much into the future, when you don’t know where society is going to be,” says Tim.

“There’s no benchmark, as long as there’s still growth, as long as we can make a living, it’s sustainable, and we’re all still enjoying it, we’ll keep going,” adds Sage.

Has the band, and have Tim, Sage and Murphy, found their post pandemic balance?

“We’re still navigating that,” replies Sage. 

As Murphy tottered back to the ladder to give the slide another go, and her parents both reached out their hands, simultaneously and unspoken, to steady the toddler, it seemed as though the elusive balance was, perhaps, already there.