Spending months in bed healing from chronic appendicitis is no way to start a band. Or is it? To beat the bed-rest boredom, Sam Ore turned to what he knew best: the blues. Ore teamed up with longtime blues player Aaron Hyatt and bassist Jordan Smith, and Three-Eared Dog was born. Their debut EP, Stuck in the Mountains, for which they play a release party this week at The Top Hat, contains tracks such as "Gas Station Blues," "Should Be a Crime" and "Why Don't You Leave Me?" There's grit here, the kind that separates lunchtime jogger from marathoner.
What sort of breed is Three-Eared Dog?
Before playing, they do five to 10 minutes of yoga to loosen up: A little downward dog, some child's pose. Another quirk of theirs is using "Tone Foam," an idea they borrowed from late Texas blues guitarist Freddie King to get more bass tone that involves sticking a chunk of Styrofoam under the strings.
They break down the blues for me. "You've got your Mississippi sharecroppers, the field hollerers, first generation," says Ore. "Next, Muddy Waters, more electrified. Then you've got people like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, third generation, and even more electricity. We're fourth generation." They combine elements of jazz, rock and pop, and work from a basic blues template. "As a band, we're embracing our multi-generic, mono-cultural roots, and our first album strongly reflects this," says Ore.
Hyatt hails from Butte, while Ore and Smith are small-town boys from Three Forks and Hamilton. Each made his way to Missoula, where all three ended up learning most of what they know on guitar from the same guy. "At that point, he was 16, in college and the best guitarist I'd ever played with," says Ore. His name was Owen Ross.
Ross and Ore played together in several projects, and eventually linked up with Hyatt in a band called The One and Onlys. Ore switched from playing bass to guitar and, together with Hyatt and Smith, learned a repertoire of jazz chords that shaped their songwriting and helped give Three-Eared Dog a common thread. "Learning from Owen really helped us jive and grow together," says Smith. Ross also plays keys on the EP.
The songs on Stuck in the Mountains talk about the economic climate, being a soldier and the frustration of working in a job and never moving forward. They all sing, and there's no clear-cut frontman. The songs are hard, honest examinations of the troubles around us, and several of the tunes refer to war both as an abstract notion and as a reality. Strange to say, but war can do great things for music, as with World War II, which acted as a catalyst for the blues's shift from acoustic to electric, and brought it to a wider audience in the 1960s and '70s.
From slow, at times desolate croons to more modernized, tangy, electric grooves, the album shows off Three-Eared Dog's ability to hit both soft and hard notes, sputtering and groaning, howling and hollering to the sway of a sweaty crowd marinated in moonshine. "Why Don't You Leave Me" is a mesmerizing, throaty tune that hits deep and makes me think of that lone drunk girl swaying in the corner of the room. "Time moves so slowly / When your love moves so fast / My heart is torn between / What I need and what I want." Another line: "Delusions of grandeur give me hope of moving on." There is anticipation here, despite the depressive mood—or expectation, at least.
"Gas Station Blues" is fast and cavorting: "I want a life that's soft / And a body that's hard / I want blue-collar friends / And a white-collar job." "Tiger" is slower, and uses a throaty growl and quick-paced narrative to tell the tale of a single mother and her only son: "You're a tiger / The first born son of a freedom fighter." It continues, "Well his granddaddy bought him an AK47 / Every man needs a weapon." It's a modernized, somber take on the old Mississippi Delta calls for rebellion by past blues players, and talks of the son growing up and lighting the world on fire.
"What interests me most about music is not its history, cultural station, technological development or anything else in the sociological sphere, but how it fits into the lives of individual people," says Ore. "Compared to larger bands, our strength is going out and connecting with people one on one and playing small shows. Of course, every mother thinks her brat is cutest, but I'm proud to say that we've created something that is distinctly by and for Montanans."
Three-Eared Dog plays The Top Hat for its album release party Sat., April 14, at 9 PM. $5.