It took a gospel workshop to make Greg Rekus see the light about his next musical endeavour.
Rekus was working as the soundman at the annual Sunday morning gospel workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival when he saw Philadelphia roots-rockers Hoots & Hellmouth using a wooden stomp box to keep rhythm.
And like a bolt out of the sky it came to him: he would build his own stomp box and start a solo project.
"I’m not that into gospel; the music’s great, but it’s not my thing. But Hoots & Hellmouth blew me away and I wanted to write gospel then and there," Rekus says with a laugh.
To meet his percussion and time-keeping needs, Rekus and his roommate constructed a box out of plywood, 2 x 4s and tambourines that could take the kind of abuse the 29-year-old Winnipegger would be dishing out on it nightly as he performs his new solo acoustic material after a decade of bashing it out onstage in hard-working punk band High Five Drive.
"I’ve wanted to do something solo in the past, but I never really saw it as a vehicle for the music I wanted to do," he says. "I used to do a set every Thursday from 9 to 9:20 (p.m.) at the Collective Cabaret because we had to have live music on Thursdays. The draw was the ’80s theme night, but I would play, and the songs weren’t good — they were sad and sappy. Seeing Hoots & Hellmouth gave me the inspiration to build one of those stomp boxes and make some high-energy music around it.
"After a few shows, if anything, I was sweatier than when I played with High Five Drive. It was amazing. I put everything I had into it."
Rekus has been perfecting his live show over the past year and will finally unveil his debut 10-track solo album, The Dude Abides (yes, named after the Jeff Bridges character in the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski), tonight at the Standard Tavern with the High Class Low Lifes, Johnny Sizzle, Kris Rendina, the Lonely Vulcans and Cornilius Crocadile opening. Admission is $8.
There is no gospel music on the album, but Rekus shows off his soulful side on the anthemic acoustic-guitar-based material, which features enough fast strumming to satisfy fans of his former work.
The Dude Abides features a selection of material Rekus wrote on his acoustic over the course of the past year, since High Five Drive called it quits after a decade together. The band’s output included three full-length albums, an EP and inclusion on more than 20 different punk compilations.
The band logged tens of thousands of kilometres on tour and its adventure-filled final European trek in 2010 was the subject of the Randy Frykas (Call to Arms: The Story of the Royal Albert) documentary The Ones Who Make it Through.
"When I started writing these songs, it was definitely a tough time. It was traumatic and scary. You think, ‘Did I just spend $100,000 and 10 years of my life just to walk away from this?’ Rekus says. "A bunch of songs just poured out then. They’re not all about that, but everything just poured out through my fingers and strings."
In High Five Drive he usually wrote on electric guitar and wasn’t overly concerned with lyrical themes, but as a solo artist with no other instruments or amplification to hide behind, Rekus was forced to dig deep. He consciously worked on his lyrics, coming up with some introspective true stories, tales he has heard over the years working as a soundman in live venues throughout the city and a couple of fictional scenarios. The songs all contribute to a blue-collar, hardcore troubadour sound that could be compared to early Billy Bragg, the acoustic side projects of Tom Gabel (Against Me!) and Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music) or even the work of one of Rekus’s local heroes, Johnny Sizzle.
"The first time I saw him live, I thought it was the most punk rock thing ever, and it’s just him and an acoustic," Rekus says about Sizzle, a Winnipeg institution.
Rekus might have changed his musical style, but his attitude remains the same. He’s still a road warrior and has already completed a couple of short tours. There are some longer ones to come, including a coast-to-coast Canadian jaunt and a trip to Europe, where he has plenty of connections owing to his past visits.
He admits he will miss his bandmates, but on the other hand, he won’t have to worry about finding everyone a place to sleep or be concerned if everyone want to play a particular venue, since Rekus handles all the booking himself.
"A lot of times it’s impossible or hard to find everybody on the same page at every show," Rekus says. "Sometimes the best I can get on a Monday night is playing in someone’s basement, and maybe we’ll get 10 of his friends and sell something. If I’m on tour and I’ve come this far, to take a day off is not worth it. It’s easier to play that show on my own with a smile and not worry about how other people are feeling," he says, noting he will care about one: his girlfriend Lyndsay Penner will be on the road with him, helping out with booking, driving and merch sales.
"If I’m going to be doing six months or more on the road, I don’t want to be away from the girl I like."