the Onion

CD Review

On first listen, Blake Thomas & The Downtown Brown's new Real Like Theater inspires visions of late-'70s Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe, with those legends' clear production and clever wordplay. Occasional harmonica, barroom piano, and Thomas' slight twang are straight out of honky-tonk heaven on road-house songs like "I Wanna Leave Again" and "Anyone Tonight." Further listens, however, reveal some modern folk-pop influences, too: Violinist Shauncey Ali establishes himself as more than a standard fiddle player, adding sophisticated frills and allowing Thomas to shine brighter on intricate gems like "On Grand Street" and "Again & Again."

Best male vocalist

Best male vocalist
MAMA winner Blake Thomas is a local talent to watch

By Al Ritchie



Blake Thomas, still a relative newbie to the Madison music scene, was recently conferred with a rather lofty title: Best Male Vocalist. Problem was, when the pronouncement was given at last month's Madison Area Music Awards, Thomas was the last to find out.

"We were about 15 minutes late and missed it," he admits with a sheepish chuckle. "I really feel bad about not actually being there for the award."

Thomas may have been something of a dark-horse candidate for the honor, but as a young performer (he's still in his early 20s), he'll have many years ahead of him to prove the award was no fluke. And with a talented and versatile band of buddies supporting him, the future looks bright indeed for this charismatic and ambitious songwriter.

Blake Thomas and the Downtown Brown bring both a youthful vigor and a hearty respect to songcraft. Equally comfortable with acoustic ballads and roadhouse stompers, the quintet -- singer-guitarist Thomas, violist Shauncey Ali, bassist Jeff Bail, keyboardist Teddy Pedriana and drummer Juicy -- nurture Thomas' songs into an appealing, amorphous blend of folk, country and roots-rock styles.

"One of the things I've learned," says Thomas, "is you can play a song a thousand different ways and still have it sound good. It just depends on what it is that you want to hear at the time. Actually, I can't even count how many times we've changed some of the tunes we play."

The group's re cent (and just-concluded) stint as hosts of the King Club's "Whiskey Wednes days" gave them a chance to gel and evolve on a weekly basis, but no two DB shows are alike. "It really depends on the place and audience," Thomas says. "With the Whiskey Wednesdays, we try to do more of our danceable numbers just because it's late, it's at King Club and people want to dance. And then, we played at Montmartre at one point where everybody sat down in a circle and we played that way."

Thomas also plays the occasional solo show around town; in fact, he and Ali are booked to perform an intimate, early-evening set at Brocach this Sunday, April 10. But it's the King Club that's given the band its biggest push to date. "I like the Downtown Brown because they bring an urban bohemian quality to the genre of alt-country that is not out of place at the King Club," says booker Tristan Gallagher. "Blake cut his teeth, from what I understand, playing in the subway in Boston -- it shows."

Chemistry -- both musical and personal -- is essential to any band's success. The Downtown Brown have forged not only a friendship but a collaborative dedication to do-it-yourself principles. To wit, the band not only live together in a rented house on Monroe Street, they've turned the home into their own multilevel recording studio.

"In my bedroom on the second floor," Thomas explains, "we've got a computer and we [record] everything through a Pro Tools rig. We're all playing at the same time when we record, but we're all in different rooms of the house. We've got the drummer in the basement in this soundproof room that we built, and then all the mikes run upstairs to my bedroom.

"It was kind of a fun process to build everything -- drilling holes, running cable and all that."

The band hope to complete the album by summer, but Thomas says they're enjoying the creative process. "Because we recorded everything ourselves, some of the stuff has been done in odd ways. We've been able to experiment with things because we've had the time to do it that we wouldn't necessarily [have] in a studio."

Given the band's versatility, arsenal of good material and willingness to reinvent themselves from song to song, that new CD promises to be one of the year's top local releases -- an obvious contender for next year's MAMA nominations...


-Al Ritchie

Live Show Review

Live Show Review
FRI, SEPT 9. Cranky Pat's. Neenah, WI.

Blake Thomas has been doing his utmost to get around the state, exposing his countrified Americana and singular vocal capabilities to the masses. The crowd seemed familiar with Thomas and it was crystal clear from the band's sound check that this would be a special night. Playing without violist Shauncey Ali, who was attending a family funeral, the band still had a full and natural sound. Pianist Teddy Pedriana was a consummate artist, providing layers of depth for the band's sound. Whether soloing in the spotlight or adding subtle flourishes, Pedriana was a huge asset to Thomas. The band opened with Hank Williams' "Honky Tonkin'," demonstrating the classic feel they bring to their version of Americana. Thomas' vocals were in fine form and at times he really belted it out with an emotional intensity. He also had complete control of his voice and the nuances he put into his phrasing were most enjoyable. The timbre of his voice brought David Gray to mind, although the style was quite different. Thomas had loads of stage presence and confidence while performing but between songs he displayed an almost boyish shyness. His talents really came to the fore when he played a solo number about two-thirds of the way through the set, demonstrating his finger-picking finesse on the guitar and his uncanny ability to express a song vocally.

-Rick Tvedt

Thomas & Downtown Brown excel in

Wisconsin is no stranger to wonderful locally based bands. It comes as a breath of fresh air when a talented local band releases an eclectic album that stands out in terms of talent, musicianship and passion. Blake Thomas & The Downtown Brown's debut album Real Like Theater achieves these tasks, creating a vibrant album that thrives on many levels.
Blake Thomas & The Downtown Brown is an alt-country band, blending rock, bluegrass, jazz, folk and country elements within their music. The sounds they produce are truly stunning, deep and rich with added bonuses of violin and keyboard. The addition of these intruments creates a full, dynamic sound, which complements the delicate lyrics, mood and theme of the record.
Real Like Theater shines on a multitude of levels because its diversity encompasses a full range of emotions. The band has the ability to capture so many moods and change the tone within 12 tracks, but executes this challenge with ease. The outcome is an album that is incredibly varied and diverese in its sound.
Their slower, passionate ballads are extremely reflective and constructed artistically. "Morsels" demonstrates the band's artistry in terms of insightful lyrics coupled with beautiful layers of instrumentation. Although the song's framework is seemingly simplistic, it is elaborate and creates a warm track that will resonate well with listeners.
Other sentimental tracks such as "Sarah," "Hardly In Tune," and "Nuthin' New" maintain a wonderful balance of passionate lyrics and amazing instrumentation. This inspiring balance illustrates just how Blake Thomas & The Downtown Brown can capture an emotion and allow listeners to feel the same way.
In a similar vein, they are able to produce upbeat, catchy songs that will put a smile on your face. The first track "Anyone Tonight" has a powerful energy to it that is seen throughout the album. Similarly, "Boston," "Tip of Your Tongue" and "Again and Again" build up intensity through the lyrics.
"Lonesome" is the strongest track of the album. It illustrates how the band captures a diverse sound and a multitude of emotions from both ends of the spectrum. The song starts off slower, but pushes the tempo, creating a powerful, emotionally packed chorus. In the background, however, the violin creates an emotionally driven counter-melody adding another dimension to the sound.
Blake Thomas & The Downtown Brown's debut Real Like Theater proves the band is vibrant and creative, especially with their first album. They deliver a truly exciting and fun live performance that generates the same passion set forth by an exceptional album.

-Beth Wick

CD Review

the Onion

CD Review

On first listen, Blake Thomas & The Downtown Brown's new Real Like Theater inspires visions of late-'70s Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe, with those legends' clear production and clever wordplay. Occasional harmonica, barroom piano, and Thomas' slight twang are straight out of honky-tonk heaven on road-house songs like "I Wanna Leave Again" and "Anyone Tonight." Further listens, however, reveal some modern folk-pop influences, too: Violinist Shauncey Ali establishes himself as more than a standard fiddle player, adding sophisticated frills and allowing Thomas to shine brighter on intricate gems like "On Grand Street" and "Again & Again."

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