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Clawing Their Way to the Top 

Pittsburgh-born Bear Cub goes to Nashville

click to enlarge No depression beard: Bear Cub (from left: pianist Dylan White, bassist Rich Condon, singer/guitarist Jesse Hall, former guitarist Charles Rocha, drummer Wes Cramer) - PHOTO COURTESY OF ALLEN CLARK
  • Photo Courtesy of Allen Clark
  • No depression beard: Bear Cub (from left: pianist Dylan White, bassist Rich Condon, singer/guitarist Jesse Hall, former guitarist Charles Rocha, drummer Wes Cramer)

Once upon a time, Jesse Hall was in a pop-punk band from Pittsburgh. But in just two years, the 29-year-old guitarist has managed to turn into a Nashville resident who looks like he's been playing folky rock for half his life -- and hasn't touched a razor to his face in a decade. 

In 2009, Hall left The Composure, the band he'd formed with Paul Menotiades, to move to Austin with his girlfriend. A year later Hall was back in Pittsburgh without that girlfriend, but with the material that would become Bear Cub's first two records, Bear Cub and Always Be Down. He put together a band to play with him and recorded with his father, Buddy Hall, in his South Hills studio. The new music, though a somewhat eclectic mix, was a far cry from The Composure.

"It's a natural progression, I think, as I'm getting older," Hall says. "When we started The Composure I was 23 or so; now I'm pushing 30. Musical tastes change. I think we're covering more pop-rock ground, more folky stuff."

The process of recording those original Bear Cub tunes, Hall says, was beneficial in a few ways. 

"When I got home from Texas, I started these songs, rapid-fire," he says. "I was pretty depressed. And my relationship with my dad -- we've always been on good terms, but I guess it was kind of strained at the time. Through recording and working together, our relationship's definitely gotten stronger."

In the summer of 2010, Bear Cub released its first album to local acclaim and sold out its first show at Thunderbird Café. By fall, with those first two albums in the can, Hall packed up the operation to head for Nashville, losing only one member in the process. 

"When we started, we had a different drummer, Matt Gray -- he does all our poster work and everything," Hall says. "I basically made an announcement one day that we're moving to Nashville. I'd made my decision and everybody jumped in, but Matt couldn't; he has a job and a nice apartment and everything in Pittsburgh. It's where his life is."

So Bear Cub relocated, with new drummer Wes Cramer and perhaps some minor delusions of grandeur based on the band's initial Pittsburgh success.

"When we first moved here, I was overconfident," Hall says. "I thought we could just move in and rule this town. Then after our first show, I thought, 'We can't play out again until we spend a lot of time practicing and getting better.' Every band we've played with down here, even if I don't care for their style of music, has been really good."

Now the band has been working on a third release -- though to hear Hall tell it, the project has gotten a bit out of control.

"This record has become a monster that sneaks into my room and scares me from sleep nightly," Hall says. "Right now we've recorded about three albums' worth of songs." Hall has written most of them, with some help from the rest of the band: Cramer, bassist Rich Condon and pianist-cum-utility player Dylan White. (Guitar/banjo player Charles Rocha left Bear Cub earlier this year.) 

The songs range from soft, piano-driven ballads and sunny pop with singalong choruses to driving, angry tunes. The challenge, of course, will be putting them together in a way that maintains the band's identity.

Right now, Bear Cub's aesthetic -- from the foot-stomping tunes of the first two albums to the band's "well-dressed gentlemen with facial hair" appearance -- is right in line with what's become one of the biggest recent indie trends. One could imagine Bear Cub opening a tour for The Avett Brothers or Mumford & Sons. 

"The beard didn't start out as part of the band," Hall says with a laugh. "The day I left Austin, I quit shaving. So it's been a year-and-a-half now. I made jokes early on that it was my depression beard, my recording beard. I grew it while I was just recording a lot and I never left the house -- why shave? Then I kept it when we started playing out, and now when people see us play, that's how they know me. Sometimes I want to shave, but our manager thinks I probably shouldn't yet."

 

BEAR CUB with THESE LIONS, GYPSY & HIS BAND OF GHOSTS. 8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 17. Rex Theater, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. All ages. $7. 412-381-6811 or www.rextheater.com

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