It's no printer's error that led to the band Pittsburgh has come to know as Chet Vincent and The Big Bend putting out its new LP, Unconventional Dog, under the pared-down moniker of The Big Bend. No, Chet didn't get booted from the band — but he's also not the focal point he once was.
"Early on, I had a lot of false starts with groups; it was painful in the way that that is, and I was sick of restarting," he says. "And when we started [this band], there was no reason to believe that that wouldn't be the case also. I wanted to have something to fall back onto with all the gains we made, or, in my mind, that I would've made. But then it ended up working out; we had a great relationship."
Drummer Abe Anderson notes that the band hasn't completely dropped the Chet Vincent nomenclature: the names are "interchangeable now," he says.
The band's new full-length is a similar blend: taking some of the old Big Bend with it, but moving into largely uncharted territory. If your knowledge of The Big Bend comes mostly from the 2011 album For Everyone, prepare for a shock: This one's got fuzzy guitars, heavy riffs and a classic-rock — sometimes even stoner-rock — vibe.
While "it's cool to have this rootsy sound," says Anderson, it wasn't completely natural to the band as a whole. "I like to play loud, funky drums. With Chet's new stuff, I'm supposed to be loud and let loose."
Loud rock, Anderson notes, is familiar to all the band's members: "We are children of the '90s; that's what we grew up with."
"We're gonna change from cowboy shirts to flannel shirts," says keyboardist Andy Voltz, with a wry smile.
Unconventional Dog is a blues-rock slow-burner with a persistent rhythm section, and it lets you know right off the bat that The Big Bend is a different animal these days. The keys are aggressive; Vincent's vocals, which on the last record were sometimes tentative, are commanding. "Limousine," the third track, recalls blue-rock revival acts like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and even the more folky tracks that take from the band's earlier iteration (like "Heart Strings") project more of a '70s California-sound feel than straight country.
The band spent the better part of a year recording the album at Anderson's parents' house in Point Breeze, where they were freed from the constraints of the studio. (The elder Andersons were out of town for an extended period.) Guitarist Dan Dickison and bassist Madison Stubblefield engineered and mixed the record.
"They have a nice-sized foyer area, and that's where we decided we wanted to track the drums," explains Vincent. "And they had a baby grand piano, which we were excited about. It was a good live room; they have hardwood floors and all."
"[In the studio], you have to record the drums first, and you set up and mic everything, then you have to tear it all back down," explains drummer Anderson. "This way, we had time — we took a couple of weeks just to set everything up.
"Then it was like — ‘Chet, come on over, let's drink whiskey and watch Game of Thrones and do takes all night.' If it works, it works. If you get hot, great — I think we did half the album in one night of base tracking. But it's nice not to have the time constraints hanging over your head."
Vincent hasn't given up on the more county side of his writing, but he has other outlets for the more straightforward country and folk songs that populated much of the last album — for one, he writes and plays guitar with Molly Alphabet.
As a result, says Voltz with a chuckle, "Now you just have undiluted rock from Chet."
Vincent is also a regular on the open-mic circuit at places like Hambone's in Lawrenceville, which he credits for a good bit of his development writing and performing.
"That's been an invaluable experience: not just networking, which is great, but it's a chance to play all the time, every week," Vincent says. "And you realize how much you suck every week. Then there are endless opportunities to try again."
"There's the band scene and the open-mic stuff, and there's not much overlap," he adds.
Although the band's 2011 release was independent, The Big Bend is working now with Wild Kindness Records, the formerly Youngstown-based label purchased last fall by Pittsburgher Jeff Betten. Unconventional Dog is one of a handful of Pittsburgh releases on the label — and the interest came as some surprise to the band, which first encountered Betten during a Gateway Clipper show the band played with Round Black Ghosts, Grand Piano and Josh Verbanets.
"I met Jeff through open mics," says Vincent, "and for whatever reason, he came to this Gateway Clipper show even though he'd never seen the bands. He saw us for the first time, then a few months later, he bought Wild Kindness, and he knew we had the album coming out."
The Big Bend got a boost almost immediately when an advance track from the new record appeared last month alongside Wild Kindness artists Andre Costello and the Cool Minors on a special Pittsburgh-themed edition of NPR's The World Café, which is nationally syndicated.
Wild Kindness is issuing both CD and LP versions of the full-length — one of the luxuries that tend to come with working with a label instead of going it alone.
"We were nervous" about signing with a label, says Vincent, "but [Betten] approached us with very realistic goals, and it's been really great so far."
Realistic goals are something The Big Bend holds dear. While band members hope 2014 brings more out-of-town shows, and they're working toward some more unconventional local gigs, the members have a refreshing point of view on work and success in music.
"‘High hopes, low expectations' is how I look at it," says Anderson. "The more things that are in the positive column — even if it's like, ‘Band plays, people are happy, alcohol is consumed,' that's great."
"The Levon Helm documentary has a thing," says Voltz: "With music, you're just along for the ride."
"We're small beans," adds Vincent. "But it doesn't mean cool things don't happen to bands like us, or towns like Pittsburgh. If we have opportunities, we're going to track them down."