Musical DNA: The Balkun Brothers — At Pray at the Altar of the Blues

by M.C. Antil on March 23, 2015

The following is the second in a series of profiles of sons and daughters of friends of mine who have decided, at least for the time being, to follow their hearts and try to play music professionally — a decision that, I’d like to think, had at least a little to do with their parents’ (and my generation’s) inherent love of music and the eclectic styles that made up the soundtrack of our lives.

Caleb 7Name: Caleb Battersby
Hometown:  Windsor, CT
Name of Band: Balkun Brothers
Instrument: Bass
Genre: Blues

My senior year at tiny St. John Fisher College in Upstate, New York, five buddies and I decided to rent an off-campus house located (go figure) just a few blocks from my school’s unofficial official college bar, a divey but always welcoming watering hole that operated under the gently Polish name of Checho’s. And when it came time for the six us to pick our respective bedrooms in our new abode, the affair turned out to be a hard-and-fast, first-come/first-serve exercise.

Which for me proved to be something of a problem as, alas, I’ve never been very adept at such things.

Caleb 23As a result, when Pat Battersby and I ended up being the very last two to show up in East Rochester that fall to lay claim to a room, the only option remaining to us was a big, sprawling open area on the third and highest floor, a space sizable enough to be split into two “rooms,” thanks to a small wooden and cloth divider about shoulder height that at one point we’d somehow managed to commandeer after a few beers.

That’s how Pat and I became friends, quasi-roommates and, in a very real way, late-night confidants; because while the other four in the house were holed up each night in their own rooms and behind their own closed doors, we’d drift off to sleep in various stages of lubrication and altered consciousness in our shared space, but not before we’d talk about things big and small, some of which mattered, some of which were, in retrospect, downright silly, but most of which seemed to somehow stretch into the proverbial wee small hours.

Our big difference was Pat never really dated much in college, and me, I was just about the opposite. He was a working, studying, reading, library-going machine and I was, well, like I said, exactly like that, only the opposite. But that didn’t stop us from growing close, from becoming good friends, and from ultimately admiring in one another all we seemed to lack in ourselves.

Caleb 20But I’ll never forget one time late in our senior year, after months of waking up and saying good morning to Pat – and Pat alone – I found myself peering over the divider and seeing my roommate actually with someone. “M.C., this is Ann Marie,” was all he said, smiling sheepishly.

And with that, everything changed. And with that, a few short months later I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of family members and well-wishers, throwing rice and shouting congratulations, as Pat and Ann Marie got in their honeymoon machine, slammed its doors shut, and then drove off down the road, their future, like the blacktop beneath them, stretched out as far as they could see.

Caleb 3This past summer, while still weak and still recovering from my nasty little bout of throat cancer, Pat called out of the blue and said he and Ann Marie were heading out to Chicago for the weekend. Turns out their youngest son, Caleb, a Boston College grad and med school student with designs on becoming a doctor, was going to be playing Summerfest, a giant week-long music festival in downtown Milwaukee, and the two were coming out to see his band perform.

Over breakfast at the Brat Stop in Kenosha (one of my go-to places in the Land of Cheeseheads), Ann Marie confided that, while she loved the fact Caleb was playing his music, she was secretly worried he’d consider making music a career and putting his plans of becoming a doctor on hold. Spoken like a true mother, I thought, even as I tried to assure her, “Oh, Ann Marie, I’m sure he’s not going to drop out of medical school just to be in a band.”

Caleb 25Of course, at the time, I figured that little trio of Caleb’s was just one more garden variety cover band making music simply because it beat growing up and having to get a real job.

But an hour later I watched as the Balkun Brothers took one of the many stages at Summerfest and began playing. And as they did that, and when the tenor, fervor and ferocity of that playing began to draw people from stages all around the grounds, a crowed of a few dozen half-interested onlookers became a few hundred fully engaged and even rabid rockin’ blues enthusiasts, some of them bobbing their heads, many of them spontaneously dancing in place, and virtually every Caleb 26one of them bursting into hearty rounds of applause and piercing whoops and whistles of appreciation at the end of each song.

Finally, two songs into the set, caught up in the energy that the Balkun Brothers were instilling in the crowd, and riding high on the power and force of their kinetic hybrid of blues/rock/funk, I leaned over to Ann Marie, looked at her sweetly, and said with a more-than-devilish little grin, “There’s no way that kid’s going to medical school.”

Caleb Battersby Q&A
What brought you to the instrument you play?
I started playing bass my sophomore year in college. I had played baritone horn throughout my schoolboy years and up through high school, but I never took it seriously. I had a couple friends Caleb 1who were into music when I was in college (including my future bandmates, the Balkuns) and I wanted to play an instrument. Everyone and their mother played guitar, and drums weren’t much of an option considering the limited space I had, so I chose the bass. It took me a little to get the hang of it, but soon I was jamming with friends late into the night. Though it is an underrated instrument, I found the bass to match me perfectly, both in terms of its sound and its purpose in a band. It is a subtle instrument, but subtle in the way that the earth’s core is subtle. You might not notice it or what it is doing, but if it ain’t churnin’, neither are you.

What music that your parents listened to had the greatest impact on you?
My dad played a lot of Allman Brothers, Jackson Browne, some Grateful Dead, Doors, all the classic rock stuff. It rattles around in the back of my head, and though I can’t point directly to some of those groups influencing me, I’m sure they did in ways I’ve yet to fully understand or notice.

Do you buy music?  And if so, how?
Yes, from time to time. I’ve been on a vinyl kick for the last few years, and I think it is a fun hobby. I buy stuff on iTunes too because it is easy. I try not to do the whole illegal downloading thing anymore, though only because most of the music I buy is from bands/artists that actually need the money.

Caleb 16Explain briefly the process by which you conceive and create your music.
Music for me has never been too technical. Technicality is important, obviously, but my approach is more intuitive. Music is just a medium for my imagination. When I play a bass line, I judge whether it’s worth anything by whether it engages my mind and takes me places. Something might remind me of an asteroid and make me feel as if I’m riding it, and something else might remind me of sitting on a back porch in the bayou. The best songs are the ones that make you feel as if you are sitting on the back porch riding an asteroid.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters, present or past?
I’m a big fan of Les Claypool, both his bass work and his whole approach to being a performer. He leads you into your nightmares and makes it a funky time, which is always good shit. Leadbelly is one of my favorite bluesmen, big, mean and poetic.

Define musical success for someone at your stage in life.
Playing, coming up with good songs, and getting’ some dough on the side to make life a little easier.

Vinyl or digital?
Vinyl is a hobby, but overall it’s digital.

Caleb 27If you could have seen any artist at any point in their career and in any venue anywhere, who, when and where would you like to have seen?
I’d have to say Led Zeppelin. Probably a common answer, I know, but they’ve captured my imagination more than any other band. When and where? Who knows, maybe the 11 PM slot in my living room.

How has your generation’s relationship to music – consuming it, buying it, making it, sharing it, etc. – changed from your mom and dad’s generation?
One could complain about the repetition in the music industry, but I really think that things are better than ever. You can go on YouTube and watch and listen to so many bands from all over the world. Sharing music is easier than at any point in history. Maybe computers will make Caleb 29instruments and bands obsolete. But if it ever gets to that point, we’ll have much bigger things to worry about.

At the risk of tooting your own horn, what has been the musical highlight of your life to this point?
Making an album and knowing that it is being played all over the world; pretty crazy stuff.

Caleb 28My Take
Ask just about anyone who traffics in it, the blues is less an art form than a calling. It is a music that only certain musicians can truly play, if only because only certain men and women have that something buried deep within them required to connect with it and play it with any semblance of honesty.

Caleb 33And while most contemporary musical genres have morphed to varying degrees over the years – hell, rock itself is, for the most part, simply an up-tempo re-imaging of the standard blues structure – the blues has managed to maintain a level of purity almost unequaled in the music world.

Enter the Balkun Brothers, three young men who both exemplify and contradict everything I just said. Their ability to play traditional blues is evident, and they can tear apart many a blues standard, almost as though placing it on the altar of sacrifice to their gods. And this seems to come from a place deep within. But they trio’s relationship with such music seems part reverence and part love, with just a twinge of awe. And they seem to sing and play traditional blues, as Caleb 2Caleb alludes to above, on almost a poetic, even artistic level, as opposed to a primal and deeply personal one.

Now, granted, I’ve only seen the band live once – and that was only for an hour in the middle of the afternoon – and watched a dozen or so videos of their on YouTube, and I don’t really know them at all personally, so take all this with a grain of salt.

However, for my money when the Balkun Brothers really shine, and when they become world class bluesmen – a term I use not out of hyperbole, but something bordering awe – is when they use the blues as a springboard for something slightly different but far more personal, be it a raucous re-interpretation of some hidden (or not-so-hidden) gem or a blistering version of one of their own compositions.

Caleb 31The band’s marriage of traditional blues and hard rock, mixed with just a dash of hip hop, a dollop of grunge, and a pure bitch-slap of funk, is riveting. Lead guitarist and vocalist Steve Balkun is an absolute force of nature, an otherwise polite and well-mannered young man who onstage looks a little like Kid Rock, sings a little like Greg Allman and a little like Anthony Kiedis, and plays like some demonic spawn of Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

But like so many hard rocking trios that discover true musical magic (think the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the James Gang, Cream, Double Trouble and Z.Z. Top) the key is not merely a great front man, but a powerful, driving, and almost otherworldly rhythm section – which describes to a T the indispensable contributions of Caleb Battersby and drummer Nick Balkun to the band’s very real sense of sound and fury.

As a bassist, Caleb is both melodic and whimsical, but still angry and even challenging, all at the same time. His grooves play off Balkun’s frequently ferocious guitar licks and soaring solos as any solid and dutiful background player would, yet he still manages to regularly travel down musical side roads that, while remaining true to the limits of his job description, find a way of grabbing your face and demanding full attention.

Caleb 8And Nick Balkun is one of those thundering, high-energy drummers who can immediately set the tone for the song and then dutifully recede into the background as provide the foundation as his brother adds his own unique sense of color. But unlike so many in his shoes, who might otherwise be swallowed whole by the attention-grabbing improvisational brilliance to his left and right, Nick Balkun dares to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his two bandmates, his powerful and kinetic playing driving them to even higher heights of musical fancy and proving, once again, that to stand straight and true a barstool needs three legs of equal length and strength, and that anything less would cause the thing to wobble horribly, if not topple altogether.

Caleb 32I remember some 20 years ago being in a used record store in Washington, DC when the kid behind the counter began playing a disc I’d never heard before. I went up and asked him the name of the band. He told me it was Popa Chubby, a guy I would later learn is a New York City guitarist and singer who has still not crossed over and become anything close to a mainstream star, but who remains to this day a deeply respected and almost revered blues man. I bought the CD on the spot and have been forever since, an unapologetic fan.

Caleb 30I bring this up only because recently the Balkun Brothers had the occasion to share a stage with Popa Chubby, and from that experience they developed something of a mutual admiration society. Which, I guess, would only stand to reason, and which represents for me personally a wonderful little bit of musical symmetry. Because when I was fortunate enough to hear the Balkun Brothers for the first time this past summer in Milwaukee, the exact same thing happened to me as the very first moment I heard Popa Chubby two decades prior.

Both times the musical world in which I love to travel, sample, taste, experiment and explore became in that one instant just a little bit richer, a whole lot more colorful, and an infinitely bigger place.

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