It’s often said, “the devil is in the details.” In music this is as true as in any pursuit, as it is the ability to interject a performance with nuance and guile that separates the derivative from the deft.
It’s fitting that my first interaction with Loren Kranz and Drew Pentkowski was at a seminar titled “How To Start a Rock Band,” which was sponsored by the D Street Foundation.
At this event, the two were part of Michigan Monsoon, a “jam-band supergroup” of sorts, featuring Kranz on keyboards and Pentkowski on the guitar. The band put on a short clinic for the young attendees in which they took turns breaking down their part of a song arrangement and explaining their approach before playing the song in its entirety for the assembled group.
Even in that setting, it was impressive to see the detailed approach that both took to their craft, from the techniques they choose to their methods of injecting variety and authenticity into an arrangement. The songs took on new life when viewed through the filter of the performer and the approach they took to getting the most out of a tune.
Just as fun is when the “campers” rushed the stage after the event, asking for autographs and offering sincere appreciation to the band for the knowledge they had imparted that day. Even the seasoned pros in the room that day could get that these guys “got it” and they were going places.
Fast forward a few years and that prophesy would seem to be coming true.
With ace bassist Ryan Fitzgerald in tow, the trio have been performing and touring as Barbarossa Brothers since 2012, shortly after guitarist Pentkowski and drummer Kranz began trading original songs.
The name originated with a high school band to which both Kranz and Fitzgerald belonged. They resurrected the name with Pentkowski in the guitar slot and added “Brothers” as a nod to their musical and vocal harmony.
A couple other trivial “facts” about the band name. First there is no “the” in front of Barbarossa Brothers. As Pentkowski said “people add ‘the’ for us all the time, though, so we didn’t need to add it ourselves.”
Second, the word “Barbarossa” can be translated as “red beard.” The high school band was fronted by a guitarist with a red beard. While Fitzgerald and Pentkowski usually wear some pretty righteous beards, neither is really red. Similar to Frank Beard, from ZZ Top, Kranz is typically clean shaven or sporting a couple days’ shadow. There. Now you know.
Over the last several years the trio have established a reputation as a phenomenal live act. Playing anywhere from street fairs to breweries to festival stages, the band’s infectious blend of rootsy rock has won over fans in an ever-increasing radius across Michigan and the Midwest.
In a rare quote, Fitzgerald stated, “It’s great to see the appreciation of original music around the State and the infrastructure that is building up to support it. We love the reactions we get from fans around home, but there is something about the enthusiasm that comes from a new crowd, at a new venue hearing what you do for the first time.”
Fans would certainly seem to be on the band’s side, as evidenced by their growing collection of Review Music Awards, including the 2017 Award for Best Alternative Band.
With the release of their first full length album, Holy Water, on June 16, Barbarossa Brothers are about to unleash “what they do” on the rest of the world.
You could get into quite a musical debate trying to categorize Barbarossa Brothers – Americana, Jam Band – even “New Orleans” is going to get thrown around, a bit. Certainly, fans of classic bands like Little Feat or more modern purveyors of the form, like the Tedeschi Trucks Band, are going to find a lot to like on Holy Water.
Album opener “Shoot You Down” is a barn burner. Featuring a screaming Pentkowski guitar line, it leaves the powerful message that these guys are not here to mess around.
What they are here to do is draw you into the music. As the band moves into Ma Cherie, New Orleans, the album hits its stride. The Kranz / Fitzgerald rhythm section slide ever so slightly behind the beat as the band issues an invitation for music lovers and festival goers to kick off their shoes and dance.
The album is full of rich textures, as Pentkowski varies his techniques from subtle Derek Trucks-esque fingerstyle slide to slick picked single note lines. It’s a “take no prisoners style” that firmly establishes Pentkowski as one of the most powerful soloists operating in the genre.
Fitzgerald is also a revelation throughout the album, as he holds down the low end with an upright bass technique that owes as much to James Jamerson as it does Charles Mingus and Edgar Meyer. Fans of Barbarossa Brothers’ live show have often been left jaw dropped when the band steps back and the reserved bassist lets his instrument do the talking.
Kranz is also all over the album, primarily as a percussionist, but also taking turns on keyboards. He splits lead vocal chores with Pentkowski throughout the disc, as well.
One nice touch on Holy Water is the inclusion of instrumental pieces Fat Sack of Bourbon and Simon In The Bay. Similar to Southern Rock luminaries the Allman Brothers, the Barbarossas have an innate sense melody and the ability to blend it with groove. It is these sorts of interesting excursions that make the band one of the favorites on the festival circuits, as concert goers get their two step on and lose themselves in a noodle dance.
Add in some tasty horn stabs courtesy of the Standard Session and a stellar production job by Reed Recording Company and you have a very satisfying package, one that is very likely to get the band noticed on the independent music scene.
According to Kranz, the plan is to release Holy Water and then “Get out and play behind it. We want to get the music out to as many people as possible. We are really proud of the recording and now we want to share it with everyone.”
Holy Water will be available for pre-order on June 2nd on bandcamp.com. Pre-orders will include immediate downloads of two tracks off the album. The album will be officially released on June 16th and it will be available for sale via the usual channels for independent music.
You can learn more about Holy Water and follow the band’s gig schedule at https://www.facebook.com/brothersbarbarossa/