By Nick Brothers
Backstage during the Waka Winter Classic at George’s Majestic Lounge on Jan. 16, there wasn’t any beer to drink for the bands who were competing.
There were five bands, each of the hometown heroes looking for the opportunity to play at Wakarusa 2014: Revolution Butterfly; Randall Shreve and the Sideshow; Cadillac Jackson; Space Camp; Don’t Stop Please; and Foley’s Van.
Foley’s Van, a bluegrass fusion kind of band, was the first to play that night. The band had played in competitions before, but this one meant the most. Playing Wakarusa was at stake. Before go-time, Chris “Lyrical Gangster” Jerry, the band’s guitarist, kick drummer, harmonica player and co-vocalist, threw up into a toilet. Nerves and anticipation affected the whole band while lying in wait for showtime.
Again, there wasn’t any beer! That is, until the guys of Foley’s
Van brought in a 30 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon for all the bands to drink. Good vibes ensued, and everyone backstage was now able to hang out with a cold brewski in hand. It was like one big musicians-only party, said Patrick “From Oklahoma” Calahan, the grizzly bassist.
Then it was showtime.
At this point, the band was “ready to rage,” and play their hearts out. As each of the band members lined up to play, Calahan, Brandon King (fiddle), Jerry, Allen Swearingen (mandolin, vocals), and Chris “Crowfoot” Crovella (banjo), and a special guest “the special sauce” Wendi LaFey (plays an “Ozark army knife” washboard) got ready to rip into the performance.
Jerry, sitting down with a kick drum at his feet and guitar in hand, addressed the audience and counted off the beat for the rest of the guys. With that, the band went into “Umphlove” their own unique tribute to Umphrey’s McGee.
A bit of history
The current unit of Foley’s Van has been together for about six months. The band formed in Fort Smith from different acquaintances and jam sessions. Foley’s Van (in reference to Chris Farley’s famous Saturday Night Live “Matt Foley’s Van Down By The River” skit) started with the current members, Swearingen and Crovella. A few band members came and went, then Melissa Schock, also a guest star, introduced the two to Chris Jerry. The three jammed, and hit it off immediately.
“That’s how it was with every band member,” Swearingen said. “We would play and I would be like ‘Wait a fucking second. Why haven’t we been playing before?”
Some shows later at Tanglewood Branch, Calahan approached the band and volunteered himself as bassist. Not long after, King joined as the fiddle player.
Their first show as this unit was four hours long, and they’ve gone on to play even longer sets. The band has become known for their ability to jam on whatever they’re feeling and use their own system of cues to move from section to section while playing.
“We have a tendency to play 10-minute songs,” Jerry said. “We’ve done a 30-minute jam before. (At the Waka Winter Classic) we only got to play three songs, so we had at least 30 minutes to play.”
The band operates on a democratic platform, where there are no leaders and everyone is held accountable. This leads to its own issues, but the band tries to discuss those when they come up.
The democracy is evident in their playing. On the surface, there is the one song itself. The chord progression, G,C,D, and the vocal melodies. If you focus your eyes and ears on each individual band member, you’ll find that the only thing keeping it together is just the chord progression. Foley’s Van operates like an orchestra, with unique musical phrases coming from each instrument at the same time, adding up to one song. From then on, it’s an all-out jam. The result: it’s pretty fun, and fun to watch King groove his ass off to the quick foot-stomping beat.
“We have a tendency of knowing what each other wants to do improvisationally,” Calahan said. “Like I know Chris is fixing to start getting psychedelic — we can all kind of sense when someone’s about to fuckin’ break into it.”
When talking with Foley’s Van at Swearingen’s Fayetteville country home, the band mentioned their philosophy of “doing the highwork.” The phrase comes from Richie “Shakin’” Nagan of Parliment Funkadelic, and he lived by it. It’s about doing the most high work and then taking it to an awesome level at 110 percent.
“If we want that thing to happen, that creative thing that we can’t explain happen, then we have to have that business side of it in the real world,” King said. “Like you have to go to your job at y’know, so and so, but we have to do the same thing if we want to spread that freakin’ love or whatever we found.”
Many of the band’s songs grow over time and change with each member’s addition.
“A few of us have a lot of good stuff that we brought that we’ve had already,” Crovella said. “Then we take our own take on their stuff, y’know, and we just do a little bit of bluegrass style into their song and then it becomes a collective unit at that point.”
Once the song is figured out, from a jam session or from a musical phrase a band member brings, the song never really becomes finished. All of their music is considered “in progress,” Swearingen said.
“You have to wash and rinse, dry it off, check it out again, put in the wash again and then finally you come up with something that’s collaborative and badass,” Jerry said.
As far as goals go, the band tries to remain humble.
“We’re trying to take over the universe,” Swearingen said. “All jokes aside, without everyone hanging out with us there’s no show. It’s full circle.”
Foley’s Van were playing their hearts out to their dark and jangly song “Whiskey Drunk,” near the end of their set for the Waka Winter Classic. It was a roller coaster of sound, going from high speed to a slow drawl, seemingly without direction in about 8 or so minutes.
There were now way more people at George’s than there was at the beginning of the set, and the newcomers were dancing and hollering, really enjoying what was going on. Then, after raging the stage, their time ran out, and they made way for the rest of the bands. According to Foley’s Van, they were all badass supreme.
The local funky contender, Don’t Stop Please, played last. From the way the crowd responded, you’d have thought they swept the competition. Swearingen had already accepted that Don’t Stop Please had won, because they just about killed it, he said.
After their set, it was judgment time. Every crowd member wrote down their favorite on pieces of paper. One by one George’s staff counted the votes, with each scrap of paper filling the bands’ hearts with Wakarusa dreams.
Eventually, they had their winner: By only a handful of votes — Foley’s Van.
The band collectively lost their minds. They jumped up and down with their sneakers on and danced all around.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Swearingen said.
Be sure to catch Foley’s Van rise to universal domination at Wakarusa this weekend June 5-8. Their sets are at 9:15 p.m. Thusdayt at the Backwoods stage and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Riverside stage.
- Catch their Wakarusa sets at 9:15 p.m. Thursday at the Backwoods Stage and at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Riverside Stage.
- If you’re passing on Wakarusa this year, you can catch Foley’s Van June 14 at WebbyD’s in Fort Smith.