Coming off a whirlwind tour of the United States this past year and playing as many as 190 shows, the Mallett Brothers say it will be “cool to cap it off at home,” on New Year’s Eve at the Portland House of Music and Events.
“In 2016, it turned into gigging harder than ever,” Luke Mallett said in a recent interview with The Phoenix, “playing five days a week throughout the summer. We’ve gone to Texas twice, and back and forth to Colorado.”
After several years as a tight, cohesive group, the band has been practicing overtime to fit in two new musicians — Adam Cogswell on drums who replaced Brian Higgins, and Andrew Martelle, formerly of North of Nashville, on fiddle and mandolin.
“In seven years, we’ve gone through more than one lineup change,” Luke said. “When we lost Brian and started with Adam, it took some adjusting. With these two new additions, we now have even more renewed energy when we play live. Martelle is a great element to add. Having a fiddle brings things to life.”
The band is based around Luke and Will Mallett, on vocals and guitar. Along with the new additions, Wally plays guitar and dobro and adds vocals. Nick Leen plays bass guitar. Their release last year, Lights Along the River, garnered widespread acclaim and raucous crowds.
What may surprise their loyal following is a secret work they’ve been honing for several years now. Expected to come out in February of 2017, The Falling of the Pine is a return to their musical roots with a typical added flourish. It is inspired in part by their time in the Maine woods while working on their last album and a book Will found on his parents’ bookshelf. The Falling of the Pine offers up ten tunes based on lyrics discovered in that book, Minstrelsy of Maine, a 1927 collection of folk songs and logging lyrics written by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm of Brewer. The band met each day for a few hours, delving into some of this rich Maine history for the new material.
“We’ve been working on it long enough. It took us quite some time,” Luke said of the upcoming LP, for which they added musical score to the words. “We picked at this in-between (live shows and other studio work). We’ve got the record finished, the artwork back, and we’re feeling close.”
The band plans a Maine theater tour for the spring, playing in some opera houses as well, a fitting backdrop for these traditional tunes. Acknowledging the value of the stories behind the songs, The Falling of the Pine is the band’s first record for which they will release a booklet of lyrics. “We’ve been asked for years to do that, and finally thought this is the one. It has the lyrics as well as quotes from the author,” Luke said.
The two Mallett brothers come from a family with a strong folk tradition. Their father Dave has churned out Maine folk songs and ballads for four decades and is featured on their last album. Their mother Jayne Lello worked with a University of Maine professor, Sandy Ives, back in the 1960s, collecting and archiving traditional songs when she first learned of Minstrelsy. Although the researching duo created some vinyl versions of the songs, the Mallett Brothers were keen to keep away from their influence and, in the folk tradition, rework the music.
“They were singing some of these songs in the traditional Irish folk way. Our mother has a copy. We heard it and knew about it, but we tried to avoid it,” Luke said. “We had a pretty good idea anyway, but we started from scratch. We wanted to match the feeling of the lyrics to the instruments we are playing now and the general feel of the whole thing. It is different, definitely not a traditional record. We did traditional songs in a non-traditional way.”
Excitement brims for the new work with the old songs, but the singer took a moment to reflect on the hubbub of the outgoing year. He said a high note was playing at Floydfest in July.
“It sets the bar for festivals,” he said. “It’s smaller than some, tucked in the mountains in Floyd, V, in Blueridge. It’s a real scene — a collection of music lovers like I’ve never seen. The people are cool, and the bands they brought in offer a lot to up-and-coming bands.”
Turning their sights on the year-ending show, the band is thrilled to be billed with Samuel James and his full band. They see the “grit and gravel” performer as a perfect fit for their folksy, countrified sound. “We have been trying to put a show together with him for five years, and it just finally worked out.”