LITTLE FALLS -- It was the spring of 2004 at Mankato's Two Fish Studios, and the session for October Road's debut album "Faded Photographs" was not going smoothly.
Lead singer Shawn Smalley came down with laryngitis on the first day. He and the sound engineer disagreed on which songs should be recorded. The band only had a limited amount of studio time, so it had to wrap three or four songs per day instead of the preferred two. And with only two hours left in the final session, the album still lacked a hit song.
Little Falls-based country and rock band October Road -- including Joe Thiele (left) on bass, Shawn Smalley on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Danna (Pantzke) Smalley on keyboards and mandolin, Dave Jopp on lead guitar and Matt Kargas on drums -- will make its first WE Fest appearance this weekend.
"'Will You Follow Me' ended up being the last track we recorded, at the end of drum day," Smalley, 27, said in a recent interview at the Black and White Hamburger Shop in Little Falls, his hometown and October Road's home base. "The band hadn't even heard it yet. We did one take that was really close, then a second take, which was a keeper, and just when we finished, lightning hit and the power went out. That was the end of the day and we just got it in time."
About a year later, lightning struck again when October Road landed its first WE Fest contract. The five-piece will perform three times this weekend, including once on the main stage.
The band is rounded out by Shawn's wife, keyboardist/mandolin player/vocalist Danna (Pantzke) Smalley, 25, Little Falls; lead guitarist Dave Jopp, 21, Detroit Lakes; drummer Matt Kargas, 22, Litchfield; bassist Joe Thiele, 21, Fargo, N.D.; and sound man Erik Benson, 25, Coon Rapids. WE Fest will force all of them to confront a question they've been able to dodge in two years of playing bars around the state: So, is October a country band or what?
The answer: Um, sort of.
Of catchy leadoff track "Will You Follow Me," Shawn admitted, "It's definitely rock." However, the CD isn't a perfect reflection of the band; only one song, "On the Road," is overtly country, Shawn believes. And, in fact, the disc doesn't feature the current band lineup at all. Only the Smalleys are represented on the seven-track album, trading off lead vocals; the studio musicians were from the Eagle River Band, "fantastic friends," with whom Shawn formerly played.
But at live shows, October Road plays about a 60-40 country-to-rock ratio.
"We're at WE Fest because we play a lot of country in our live show," Shawn said. "We're still trying to establish a fan base right now, so we're not really focusing so much on original music. It's sad to say that, but when we have time to rehearse, which isn't very often, I think we're more concerned with learning the new cover tunes that are going to go over well.
"The only reason we are working on new originals is we want to play them at WE Fest. One of the new ones ("A Little More") is very fun to play. I think that one has hit potential. It's got some nice hooks in it."
"I like the other one better," Jopp said of "You Were Meant to Be."
Jopp and the Smalleys all have different tastes: Danna likes to listen to female vocalists of any genre and Jopp is a connoisseur of emo and pop radio (lately, he can't get enough of the new Black Eyed Peas single and Jessica Simpson's version of "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'.") Shawn likes anything, as long as it has a hook.
"The only rule I have with what I listen to is it has to have good writing and a pop sensibility," he said. "There's nothing more annoying to me than listening to something that's just loud, crunchy screaming that's poorly crafted. I had teenage angst like anybody else, and I was going through high school during the grunge phase, when everyone was into Nirvana. I was more into Stone Temple Pilots, the Lemonheads, more introspective stuff."
Shawn is clearly the frontman of the interview, during the course of which he mentions several more pet peeves that earn his "nothing more annoying" label. Among them: people who talk during concerts, bars with red carpet (this doesn't include St. Cloud's Red Carpet, which is tiled), Wal-Mart, bar patrons who place their beer on expensive sound equipment, people who shout "Play some Godsmack," western North Dakota county fairs and basically the entire history of country music.
If you go
What: October Road at WE Fest
When: Midnight Friday (side stage), 1:15 p.m. Saturday (main stage), midnight Saturday (side stage)
Where: Soo Pass Ranch, Detroit Lakes
WE Fest tickets: $110-$175
Web sites: www.october-road.com, www.wefest.com
Still, he maintains that Danna and Jopp are the "frontmen" on stage.
"I sing most of the tunes but I don't have a frontman persona," Shawn said. "I'm decent with one-on-one, but ..."
"He's a chatterbox," Danna interjected.
Undaunted, Shawn continued: "I think a lot of frontman personas are so fake. There's nothing more annoying to me than to go to a show with a frontman that just blabs away, and I think Dave and Danna really come to my rescue with getting the crowd into it."
"Because we're the good-looking ones in the band," Jopp said.
"That, too," Shawn said.
On stage, it's the singing and playing that matters to October Road. Taking a cue from Fargo's 32 Below, which got a career boost from playing a five-hour set that has become the stuff of WE Fest legend, October Road plans to play all night without a break.
"At that midnight Friday show, we're gonna play until the sun comes up," Shawn said.
And even if it seems like everyone is talking while the band is playing, a marathon session like that just might ensure that lightning continues to strike for October Road.
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.
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