Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not just treading water

Up a Creek’s a tidal wave of folk ’n’ roll


By JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Express Staff Writer

A renovated—only slightly soundproofed—shed on Tendoy and Amber streets in Bellevue is the birthplace of the B.S. and jam sessions that became the local favorite band Up a Creek. The four fathers are, from left, carpenter Bill Sprong, 42, Jeff London, 36, and Scott Seaward, 43, both from Marketron, and Wood River Middle School teacher Raul Vandenberg, 44.
Express photo by Roland Lane

On most Thursday evenings, when the rest of the Chantrelle neighborhood in northwest Bellevue has gone on to quieter things, four middle-age men kiss their kids and wives goodnight and saunter off into the dark to rendezvous at an outdoor shed behind Bill Sprong's home on Tendoy Street.

For the next few hours, the middle school teacher, the carpenter and two guys from Marketron step into an alternate universe and assume their positions as the members of the crowd-pleasing folk rock band known as Up A Creek.

Until about four years ago, before Raul Vandenberg moved his family to the neighborhood and started teaching at Wood River Middle School, Sprong, Scott Seaward and Jeff London were in a group called In Search of a Red Headed Fiddler. They played at the Northern Rockies Folk Festival and launched the summer Back Alley Party series in Hailey.

While they were having a great time, and were well received, singer Sprong said that in hindsight, they lacked a cohesive sound, and a fiddler—of any color hair.

"We tried to be an Irish folk band, but we just weren't very good at it." But, he says, after Vandenberg moved in, bringing a different set of vocal, songwriting and guitar strengths, "We stopped trying to force what we couldn't be and sort of decided if Neil Young can sing it, we can."

As they tinkered with their music, shifted instruments, shared stories and experimented with original ideas, a definite style emerged. Now, it needed a handle.

"We had a list of names that we narrowed down and debated over endlessly," Vandenberg recalls. "Scott came up with 'Without a Paddle' at one point, which led to 'Up a Creek.'"

Grandma's Pills or Up a Creek was put to a vote.

"Based on how the band has evolved, we definitely made the right choice," says Vandenberg. "Life witnessed through the UAC lens usually results in songs about lovers, losers, sinners and fools, black eyes and angry wives—being up a creek without a paddle!"

And, "after a couple of months playing covers in the shed, all these new songs started to develop and the band's direction really became apparent. Then it was 'let's find a venue.'"

The past year has been the busiest yet, with a steady diet of local gigs and even one trip to Boise for Halloween in front of nearly 2,000 people.

"We did seem to find the groove this year and the Up a Creek train is hurtling down the rails," Vandenberg says. "We played a whole lot of shows, met a whole bunch of people, played with some great bands and had an unbelievable time. We're ready for the next step for sure. It was first the shed ... find a gig ... play more gigs to hone the craft ... put out an album ... get a trailer. Now it's start expanding the perimeter."

Last fall, the band recorded its first CD titled "Sifting Through the Pieces." The 10-track selection contains a lot of laments, quests for redemption and resignation to being slightly naughty and exhausting husbands to patient and adoring wives.

That pretty much sums up their reality. Although these well-groomed guys don't look like they've lived all the things of which they sing, they sing like they have, tempering the oft-bummer stories with a liveliness that makes one want to dance.

In the liner notes, they thank all the venues that have supported them over the years, as well as the "little Creeks"—Avery, Cade, Caroline, Emmers, Grendel, Huck, Seth and Sophie—and "the Creekettes"—Amanda, Dana, Jamie and Kristi.

There aren't a lot of local shed-bred bands that can boast a 12-member entourage. Even if no one showed up for their gigs, this ever-present party posse is front and center, cheering, dancing, whooping and hollering like groupies.

"Our wives have been extremely supportive and instrumental in giving us plenty of rope to be weekend rock stars," Vandenberg says. "Our families are the fifth member of UAC, no doubt about that. Come to an Up a Creek show at a family-friendly place like Mahoney's or the Spud and it looks like a birthday party every time—no man, woman or child is left behind with this band of brothers!"

Sprong and Vandenberg write most of the songs but add that the credit goes to the whole band. The genesis of a song is usually a chord progression, a vocal melody, ideas and lyrics in various stages of completion made whole during one of the Thursday night practices.

"They aren't all happy songs, but we have a great time playing them and there are few things as rewarding as your songs connecting emotionally with an audience," Vandenberg says.

London says that besides the camaraderie, it's seeing how people respond to their original works that keeps them from being complacent.

Sprong adds that they can never predict how a song is going to rally people on a given night, so that while they have a set list prior, they tend to improvise along the way.

"More often than not, it's a totally weird song that will bring them out to dance, and one you think you can count on sends them running for drinks," he says.

"Yeah," Seaward inserts, "The audience is either drinking because they like use, or drinking to forget us."

The band members say they won't be quitting their day jobs any time soon, but they are breaking even. Still, as cheerleading, hockey, baseball, gymnastics and soccer dads, their kids need steady paychecks.

Any tour or offer to grow would have to suit all their needs.

"I wouldn't want to do this with anybody but these guys," Seaward says.

"And if we had to do it every night for 30 days in a row, maybe we'd get bored," reasons Sprong.

London adds with a wry smile, "It's a hobby, it's not for the money and chicks. It's more fun than going to work, and the kids think this is what you do—you grow up and you join a band."

"Our kids have broken their share of microphone stands and guitar strings," Vandenberg says. "They get an extra playroom and can make a whole lot of noise! They're exposed to music much more than some of us were at that age and it's fun to see them figuring it out on their own."

The guys say they are already spread too thin—now they worry about being spread too thick on local audiences. They don't want to lose their fresh appeal.

"We're so lucky to have so many venues open to us here that we probably take it for granted, but we would really like to get beyond the valley a little more," Vandenberg says. "It's fun to dream. But when you have 16 people in the band trying to get all their calendars together, it's a little tough."

Up a Creek will have a few more gigs open to them this summer as one of their heroes, the band Old Death Whisper, takes off for a European tour.

"Those fellas are right on," Sprong says. "We are big fans of ODW and the way they're going about their music."

London calls them "uncompromising and in your face" and "the real deal."

Before Old Death Whisper departs abroad, the group invited Up a Creek to join them in making their album and a music video, which they will do this Friday, April 20, at Bellevue's Silver Dollar Saloon.

"We'll send some CDs with them to share in Europe and start negotiating with our wives, but this summer will be spent closer to home," Vandenberg says. "Every year has been better than the last and we're excited about the future."

"There's plenty of fresh ground to cover yet for UAC here in the northwest and plenty of people here locally we haven't converted. We want to take our music to new audiences. We just need to find a bus big enough to drag our wives and kids along."

________________________________________________________

Be a part of local music history

What: Old Death Whisper with special guests Up a Creek are making a live CD.

When: Friday, April 20, at 7 p.m.

Where: Silver Dollar Saloon in Bellevue.




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