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Published: Saturday, 3/11/2006

Success and the Soledad Brothers

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toss out the stereotypes, dust off the history books, give Jack White a call, and put Thelonious Monk on the CD player.

The Soledad Brothers are coming home.

One of Toledo's leading 21st-century exports, the Soledad Brothers have been performing sold-out nightclub shows across Europe and are heading back to Toledo for a Wednesday night show at Mickey Finn's.

The group is fired up to celebrate its fifth album, "The Hardest Walk," released on Alive Records in Europe March 6 and due for release in the United States on Tuesday on the same label.

The first single, "Good Feeling," is an uptempo blues tune that is already getting airplay on MTV. Of interest locally is the band's slow, mournful ballad, "Mean Ol' Toledo," that recounts the Electric Autolite Strike of 1934.

Set to a steady, dirge-like beat of a tom tom, the song is filled with jangling guitars, images of the dark day when "fear fell like a mother's tear" and two men were killed in violence triggered by a labor strike.

Johnny Walker, the Soledad Brothers' guitarist and singer, said he was impressed by a 1994 protest in Toledo when the bridge where the workers were killed was slated to be torn down.

"People chained themselves to the bridge, so they dismantled it and numbered the pieces ... so it could be reassembled some day," Walker said in a recent interview from London. The parts are being stored in a city maintenance yard.

"Seventy years on, people are still so adamant about it that they would chain themselves to the bridge."

Formed in 1995, the Soledad Brothers were founded by Walker, a graduate of St. Francis de Sales High School, and drummer Ben Swank of Maumee. The band is named after a trio of inmates at the California maximum-security Soledad Prison who in 1970 were charged with killing a guard in retaliation for the death of a black activist.

The pair later added multi-instrumentalist Oliver Henry of Cincinnati, who plays keyboards, guitar, flute, and saxophones, and in the last few months added a fourth band member, a French multi-instrumentalist who goes by the single name of Dechman.

"We recorded the album in Bordeaux, France, and Dechman was like a friend who lived there," Walker said. "I didn't realize how good he was until he showed up in the studio with a sitar and started playing it. Then he played cello, and upright bass, and organ - all kinds of stuff. He trained in a conservatory and is just really talented."

Will the Soledad Brothers continue to expand, adding talented musicians who they meet along the way?

"The Soledad Orchestra," Walker replied with a quick laugh. "But I have to hand-pick everybody."

The lineup changes are a good representation of the Soledad Brothers' style - fluid, unpredictable, exciting, and expanding. The group plays with a fuzzed-out blues-rock energy but at the same time creates an inexplicable mix of brute power and artistic sophistication.

Their music has drawn raves from such high-profile sources as Rolling Stone magazine, rock poet John Sinclair, and their personal friend (and Walker's ex-roommate), Jack White of the White Stripes.

White produced the group's first song and took lessons from Walker on how to play slide guitar.

Detroit rocker White also appears on the Soledad Brothers' self-titled 2000 debut disc, dressed as a blindfolded Uncle Sam in a cover scene inspired by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk's last album, "Underground," according to Walker.

"The Monk album is like a French Resistance World War II motif and we used the Black Panther thing instead," Walker said. "Instead of an SS officer, we had Uncle Sam tied up. That album is getting really hard to find."

Monk, the enigmatic jazz genius, is one of Walker's personal favorites. He said people often mistake Monk's style for total improvisation when in fact much of the music is carefully rehearsed and orchestrated.

"He's a madman!" Walker gushed. "It sounds like what he's doing is very free and off the cuff, but people don't realize how much he and Sun Ra's 'free jazz' is written. It's all written, and it's not 'free' at all. It's totally disciplined."

In a similar way, the Soledad Brothers sound loosey-goosey and rough-edged, but the music is far from garage rock.

Walker said he practices guitar eight hours a day, just about every day. "I play nonstop. It's like meditation," he said. "And not like scales or anything, but kind of meandering around, trying to find different tonalities. And the exercises often turn into songs. I try to play them faster and faster. Right now I'm working on finger-picking. I want to get good enough to play with the bluegrass folks in Kentucky. That'd be cool."

The wisp of success swirling around the Soledad Brothers has been enough to keep Walker from following up on a job for which he had years of training - as a medical doctor.

Walker graduated from the University of Cincinnati Medical School with a specialty in psychology, but has put that career on hold while the rock dreams are still viable. He has a job offer in Cincinnati and the hospital chief has been understanding of his unique situation, he said.

Ticking off the Soledad Brothers' recent tour dates, which have ranged from Zanzibar to Glasgow, with U.S. shows coming up in Fargo, N.D., San Francisco, and Newport, Ky., (finger picking bluegrass time), Walker said that, starting in June, he will be working with children in the psychiatric unit in Cincinnati. And he plans to use music to help break the ice and get the kids at ease.

"It will be a full-time job and a step toward working back toward residency," Walker said. "I'll still be able to come back to Europe and do festivals and short tours. They said they'd grant me the time to do that.

"Essentially, I'll be working as a doctor, but making $8 an hour. I'll probably be in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world's poorest doctor. Actually, I'm probably already in there. How many doctors live in a van?" he said with a hearty laugh.

The Soledad Brothers will be in concert Wednesday at Mickey Finn's Pub, 602 Lagrange St. Opening are Heartless Bastards and Boogaloosa Prayer. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Information: 419-246-3466.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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