Buffalo audiences have a right to think they know Ron Hawkins.
As lead vocalist, guitarist and one of the principal songwriters with Toronto's the Lowest of the Low, Hawkins has been playing Buffalo clubs, concert halls and major outdoor summer concerts for decades. Between Low dates, Hawkins hit the area's club scene hard with his Rusty Nails in the late 1990s, and has been a steady presence as a solo artist in the time since that band called it a day.
Even longtime members of Hawkins' devout Buffalo audience might be surprised by "Rome," out this week. The first release to be credited solely to Hawkins' new band, the Do Good Assassins, the twin-CD set (and attendant digital download) is subdivided into "Rock" and "Country" discs. It reveals a more soulful vocal presence than previously heard from Hawkins, and a much more diverse, limber and dynamic aspect in terms of composition, performance and production. The indelible melodies and raggedly literary lyrics are warmly familiar to intimates of Hawkins' music, but something in the ensemble sound screams of a new beginning.
Hawkins and the Do Good Assassins arrive in town for a two-night stand at 8 p.m. today and Saturday in Mohawk Place (47 E. Mohawk St.). Last week, Hawkins spoke to The News regarding his "broadened musical palette," the joys of new musical relationships and his love for Buffalo audiences.
>JM: In between your periodic shows with the Lowest of the Low, you've been touring almost exclusively as a solo artist over the past several years. This is the first album credited solely to the Do Good Assassins. What about this particular group of musicians urged you to make this one a full band, double album?
RH: When we got together to start working on some of the songs from my "Straightjacket Love" album, it just felt so good and so natural right off the bat. First of all, it was great to have a band behind me again after doing so much as a solo artist. Playing together was instantly fulfilling, and that is an incredibly rare thing. These guys can take the music in many different directions.
Right off the bat, there was this country-soul vibe to what we were doing, and it allowed me to sing in a much more soulful way than maybe I'd been able to in the past. That area is just such an appealing one to work in for a singer, and it's something I'm really excited about.
>JM: How does this ensemble compare to the Lowest of the Low, in terms of the on-stage dynamic and the sense of musical interplay?
RH: With the Low, we do what we do very well, I think. But the Low is a giant, shambolic, churning [expletive]-storm! (laughs) I say this with total love for the band, and absolutely no desire to downplay everyone's contribution to what it is we do. But it's not quite as wide a palette as I've been able to explore with the Assassins. There is more color available here, and a whole different set of dynamics, as well. I feel I've been able to broaden the palette.
>JM: "Rome" is a double disc, with the first disc subtitled "Rock" and the second "Country." What was the thinking behind assembling them in this fashion?
RH: It just seemed like, here are the things that we do well – this whole country-soul thing that evolved from playing the "Straightjacket Love" material on the road, and then, here's these new rock songs that were inspired by working with the band, and realizing that the band had a definite sound and a capability to move in a few different directions convincingly.
When we first went into the studio, I really wanted to do the whole thing live, directly off the floor and into the microphones, mix it down, and have that be it. But then, I started to hear all these arrangement ideas and overdub concepts in my head, and I thought, well, why the hell not just do it?
>JM: It does seem like there is some rewarding "ear candy" in the mixes for the listener to uncover.
RH: Yes, exactly. I've always loved the records where repeated listening is rewarded. I love music where you can peel away the layers, like an onion. For me, when it's working like that, the songs and the albums become like people. The more you get to know them, the more you realize that you hardly know them at all.
Here's an example – I've gotten to know this guy over very many years. He's come to all of these shows for the Low, for my solo stuff, for the Rusty Nails, and for the Do Good Assassins, too. I was talking to him after a show one time several years ago, and I said, "Hey, we're doing this anti-war fundraiser and helping to raise awareness of what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth, and we're playing, and hey, you should come." And the guy was like, "Whoa, Ron, slow down. I love your music, but we have absolutely nothing in common politically."
That was an eye-opener. I guess I'm guilty here of assuming that, because we had the music in common, and this guy was soooo into the music, well, he must be somewhat liberal-minded. We all have preconceptions and we all make assumptions and presumptions. And they can be way off the mark. It's the same way with music that we listen to over a long period of time. You can think you know it, that it can't offer you any more surprises. And then one day, you're listening to it, and you hear something you've never heard, and all of a sudden, it's not what you thought it was any longer.
>JM: Thematically, there are some heavy songs here. They deal with issues that, maybe 10 years ago, you wouldn't necessarily have been writing about…
RH: That's true. I've lost a lot of friends over the past few years, people who have died too young, mostly because of the hazards that come along with this life in music, the whole rock 'n' roll lifestyle thing. Most of them came down to bad life choices. These are things that I've had to wrestle with myself, and luckily, I've been able to achieve balance. But some of my friends haven't been so lucky.
"Home Sweet Home," on the "Rock" disc, for example, is like a eulogy for a friend who didn't make it. I was really trying to capture the spirit of the Jim Carroll Band song "People Who Died." I wanted to pay tribute to my friend in the sound and style that friend would've appreciated. These are things you eventually have to deal with and address in your life when you've been around a while.
>JM: Your relationship with Buffalo audiences goes back just about 25 years now, and it doesn't seem like the honeymoon is winding down in the slightest. To what do you credit the mutual love?
RH: Well, you know, Buffalo and Toronto kind of grew up together. I come from a working-class background, and I remember coming to Buffalo, and really feeling this underdog sensibility, that was also very punk rock. We'd play, and go to the Old Pink (in Allentown), and it just seemed like everyone we met was very real, very down to earth, and very much in possession of that fighter's spirit. We recognized it from the beginning. We've always been treated great in Buffalo.
You know, I love Toronto, but let's face it, it has become very gentrified over the years. There's something about Buffalo that's sophisticated, too – the architecture is beautiful, and the people are warm. There's this sort of dilapidated glory to the city that just hits home with me in a major way."
Ron Hawkins & the Do Good Assassins
WHEN: 8 tonight and Saturday in Mohawk Place, 47 East Mohawk St.
TICKETS: $17 (Ticketmaster)