SONS OF NAZARETH
How blues rock thunder chooglers Pearls & Brass found their sound in rural Pennsylvania.
by Brian J. Barr
Photography by Maria Tessa Sciarrino
Originally published in Arthur No. 21 (March, 2006)
Pennsylvania is a gentle state, its curving hills blanketed by lush maple, oak and chestnut trees whose leaves all turn to a dazzling spectrum of red, orange and yellow each year around October. Over the past several million years the glacial run-off carved deep river valleys into the land, and in the mid-state region left the soil flat and fertile enough for farms and high school football fields. Outside the concrete sprawl of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (the port cities bookending the southern region) Pennsylvania is pock-marked by countless factory and agricultural towns, nearly all long past their economic peak.
Pearls and Brass hail from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a rural nowhere of about 6.000 situated near the New Jersey border, a mile from the Appalachian Trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia. The Martin Guitar factory, maker of acoustic guitars, is in Nazareth; so, too, is the Nazareth Speedway. But like most rural Pennsylvania towns, Nazareth is desperately non-descript; its smallness is its defining characteristic.
“Nazareth was your typical small, working class town,” says Randy Huth, Pearls and Brass’ guitarist and vocalist. “Not a whole lot going on, y’know. But that pretty much made us do our thing.”
Alumni of Nazareth High School, the members of Pearls and Brass (Huth plus Josh Martin, drums; Joel Winter, bass vocals) come off as sincere and plainspoken guys whose roots run deep through their town. Together, they play a bluesy power trio rock that has as much to do with Skip James as it does Blue Cheer; loud, melodic, eerie and crammed with enough riffs to dizzy Tony Iommi or Matt Pike. It’s as if they successfully boiled down the basics of the blues, cranked the volume and carried on the tradition of early Black Sabbath and The Groundhogs. Not to mention they narrowly avoided a case of blue-collar ennui by investing in the healing powers of rock n roll.
If we are to ascribe a myth to Pearls and Brass, it will be one of “local boys make good” romanticism. One imagines Pearls and Brass as the Cobainesque outcasts of Nazareth High, taking refuge in their record collections and loud guitars. We picture them drinking whiskey and smoking grass in a parked car out in the middle of the woods on Friday nights while their classmates cheered on the home team. Most likely they’re holding down low-paying jobs to afford their vices; bagging groceries at Giant Food or bussing tables at De Nisi’s Family Restaurant, whatever teenagers do to get by in these places, the weary townships of rural America.
If we were to ascribe such a myth it wouldn’t be far from the truth. Huth, Martin and Winter went to school, smoked grass, worked shitty jobs, went for long walks alone in the woods, playing guitar. Individually they’ve spent their post-high school years either in-and-out of college, or employed at labor-intensive, low-wage jobs. As a band, they’ve released a single little-heard album on a tiny label—2003’s Pearls and Brass, on Doppelganger—which may have sold in the low triple digits. They’ve never toured for more than two weeks.
And yet, despite this relative isolation and obscurity, Pearls and Brass scored a gig at February, 2005’s Slint-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Camber Sands, recorded a new album in California with Fucking Champs’ Tim Green, and have found a higher profile home at indie label Drag City—all the result of a single right-place, right-time event.Continue reading