High Hopes at The Ride, Part 2: For the Band of Heathens, Rock Around the Clock Works

They might be known as a bunch of Heathens, but five musicians in an Austin, Texas-based group are firm believers in themselves. That's what it took to become one of the hardest workingman's rock 'n' roll bands west of the Mississippi.

The Band of Heathens, who return to The Ride Festival in Telluride at 12:15 p.m. Saturday (July 9), may not be as rich and famous as the Pacific Northwest outfit headlining later that night, but it's not for lack of trying.

With Pearl Jam leading the way, few others in this two-day lineup can match the longevity of BOH, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary over Thanksgiving in 2015. And though they have experienced personnel changes over the years, founding members Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist have stuck together from Day 1 to instill their work ethic into a band that has no doubting Thomases.

If there's a secret to their staying power, though, Jurdi isn't completely sure what it is. On the phone in late June in Asheville, North Carolina, where he has lived with his family for over three years after ending an eight-year stay in Austin, the bearded soul of BOH delved into the unknown to address the band's endurance factor that rivals the Drive-By Truckers, their Southeastern counterpart.

"I think if we figure it out, we'll probably stop doing it," he said with a laugh. "That's why it's still working. There's some mystery there. There's something interesting that keeps us coming back to try and dig deeper, to get more out of the ensemble we're playing with."


The Band of Heathens (from left): Trevor Nealon, Gordy Quist,
Scott Davis, Richard Millsap and Ed Jurdi.

Jurdi, who shares principal singer-songwriter and lead guitarist duties with Quist, also plays keyboards and harmonica in a quintet that includes Trevor Nealon (keys, vocals), Richard Millsap (drums, vocals) and Scott Davis (bass, vocals).

He delivers thoughtful, detailed replies to other questions regarding group dynamics, chemistry, evolving and the joys of playing Telluride with the fervor of a preacher. If this music thing doesn't quite work out, the Jesus lookalike whose appearance inspired a T-shirt could become a motivational speaker in his next life.

Not that he would have predicted a long, productive career in a Southern rock 'n' roll band when he arrived in Austin from Boston and began making music in 2005 with Quist and Colin Brooks, the third singer-songwriter who played lap steel and other guitars in what would become a Holy-Cow! trinity.

"Oh, I didn't even think we'd be around for a month, to be honest with you," Jurdi said of the trial run that turned into basically a yearlong residency. "It really was like a side gig. It was a pickup thing, a fun hang. ... It really just started as a jam."

That turned into playing more than 200 road dates a year when Seth Whitney (bass, vocals) and John Chipman (drums) joined the group.

The lineup changes began in 2011 with the departure of Brooks, who returned along with Chipman for a few anniversary shows last November.

"Like everything else, everybody ends up landing where they're supposed to be," Jurdi explained, saying that Brooks is "a super-creative guy" who still keeps his hand in music but has done everything from custom building and carpentry to concrete and tile work. "Whether that happens immediately or takes a little bit of time, it's all good, it's all right. "That ended as good as it could end. It wasn't like, 'Hey, fuck you. I hate you.' (laughs) ... It was like, 'This is great but I've done enough of it. There's other things I want to do.' ...

"Long story short, I think everyone's always has been in this for the right reason, and that was to try to make the best music that they could make, whatever your contribution is to it. I guess if there's a secret, that's what has kept us going."

Jurdi struggled with a question about who was the toughest member to replace, saying as a fan and as a co-member, he had "kind of like a conflicted view. ... Within the band, it's like, I think a lot of times this stuff is harder for the fans than it is for the bands, actually. (laughs) ...

"But in any rock band, in like a rock 'n' roll band, it's always the drummer. It always starts with the drummer. If you don't have a good drummer in a rock 'n' roll band, you're fucked." (laughs)

Chipman actually recommended Millsap, Jurdi said, and once that happened, "it all kind of fell together pretty naturally."

Hitting what he calls their "great sweet spot," the Band of Heathens have completed work on Duende, their eighth full-length album but first since 2013's Sunday Morning Record.

"I don't know if it's a cliche thing at this point for every band to say the most recent thing that they've done is their favorite, (laughs) but honestly for us I think it is," Jurdi offered. "I think the band is sounding better than it ever has. ... I feel like we're sort of at a point where we're able to assimilate our influences and kind of combine them in a way that's our own. We kind of finally found the sound of the band, I think. Like where all the influences of the band are able to meld more seamlessly."

To satisfy fans awaiting the record's January arrival, they released Green Grass, a five-song EP that includes "Green Grass of California," described in a press release as "a timely tongue-in-cheek marijuana anthem."

No wonder they like Colorado, where these Heathens have been a fan favorite in Denver (check out the two-CD/two-DVD set The Double Down: Live in Denver) and smaller Colorado mountain towns like Breckenridge, Vail and, in the southwest corner of the state, Durango.

BOH also played in Telluride at cool clubs like the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon (possibly in 2008, Jurdi thinks) and historic settings like the Sheridan Opera House. The downtown theater relic hosted the Telluride Americana Music Weekend on July 22-24, 2010, when BOH appeared on a bill that included Joe Ely, Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart, and Rod Picott & Amanda Shires.

It was sort of precursor to the Ride Festival, the event in its fifth year that Jurdi called "a nice, little jewel in the Triple Crown of festivals in Telluride" that fits nicely between June's Bluegrass Festival and September's Blues & Brews event.

Even as more of them transform into family men while reducing the touring schedule to 100 to 120 dates in "a normal year," the Heathens don't need to prove themselves as a band that thrives on working overtime and energetic live shows. Invited back after playing a heroic role at last year's Ride Festival is enough hard evidence to support that.

Scheduled initially to only perform a Saturday NightRide show during the weekend festival in 2015, BOH's late-night appearance was shifted at the last minute from the High Pie Pizzeria & Tap Room to the Elks Lodge.

"They had a curfew at midnight and we went on at 11:15 or something,"Jurdi said. "We played like 45 minutes and then we ended up doing a half-hour acoustic set where we just sort of sat on the edge of the stage and sang some songs without amplification, which was really fun. I think of the people that were there, it was kind of a memorable experience."

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the band got a call from the promoters. Baskery, a rocking band of three Swedish sisters, had to cancel their afternoon set on the main stage.

"They were like, 'Can you guys come and play a set at 1 o'clock tomorrow?' We're like, 'Yeah sure, totally,' " Jurdi recalled, knowing his band had a travel day planned.

"It was a great show. The audience was super-receptive. In Telluride, there's a lot of really great music fans, for sure, knowledgeable music fans. We had a great, kind of fun, wacky, weird experience last year. So we're definitely looking forward to it again this year."

With all the tools of the trade, the members of this Band of Heathens know from experience. Just watch how they get the job done.

ON THE ROAD TO THE RIDE: THE BAND OF HEATHENS

In honor of their upcoming appearance, Ed Jurdi of the Band of Heathens offered opinions about the Ride, the road and the southwest Colorado town known for peak performances.

First impressions of Telluride:
Ed Jurdi: "Obviously, it's a spectacular place. The beauty is just like literally breathtaking. Just like literally being a part of the mountain. Even in Colorado, you're around the mountains a lot or you feel like you're in the mountain. I literally feel like I was in the mountain in Telluride. We came in at night maybe, so I didn't see it. But I remember waking up in the morning and stepping outside our condo and just like being at the foot of the mountain, just looking straight up. One of the most beautiful places in the country."

On performing at high altitude:
Ed Jurdi: "I remember being a little bit winded up in Breckenridge. (laughs) The altitude doesn't really bother me. I haven't ever had altitude sickness or anything like that. At certain points of the show, if I'm really singing hard, I think I might have been playing harmonica or something, I remember at one point Breckenridge being like, 'Wow, I'm working a little bit harder (right now) than I normally (do).' "

What crowds can expect from Band of Heathens at the Ride this year, with a set on the main stage Saturday afternoon (12:15-1 p.m. July 9):
Ed Jurdi: "I think the band right now is sort of really geared well for playing festivals in terms of the energy that's happening on stage. It's a really good rock 'n' roll show. I think we have a good read on audiences, especially audiences in Colorado. They seem to kind of get what we're doing. ... If we play kind of a country song, people love that and if we start jamming, people are right there with you. So it's pretty easy for us."

Since this festival is called the Ride, what has been the ride of your life?
Ed Jurdi: "I think just getting to do this. This adventure has been amazing. It's taken me all over the world. I met all kinds of people, made great friends. I guess all the things you could hope for. And none of it was anything like I thought it was gonna be, which has made it even more of a literal ride. We're on the ride and I'm not holding the steering wheel." (laughs)

Most memorable road trip with your band:
Ed Jurdi: "There's been a lot of them. Maybe the first time we went to Europe. That was kind of a trip. ... Again, like a lot of things, whatever time you spend getting prepared for whatever's gonna happen, when you get there it all goes out the window. (laughs) The first time we went to Germany and the Netherlands. It was awesome. ... I feel like pointing out anything specific would maybe be doing it at the expense of leaving out something else that might have been equally amazing."

Act you would climb a mountain to see:
Ed Jurdi: "Probably Pearl Jam would be the answer, right? I've never seen them. They were kind of breaking big when I was in high school. It'll be cool to see them and to share the stage with them. They're that sort of perfect thing. Where it's like they had a lot of commercial success but obviously what they do has gone way beyond that."

Go-to cover song these days:
Ed Jurdi: "It always changes. Every tour, every couple months, we try to get a few new ones in. ... A couple that we've been digging lately, we've been doing 'Hey Bulldog' by the Beatles ... 'Ballad of a Well-Known Gun' by Elton John. ... We did this song, this Kevin Welch song, 'Millionaire,' for a while, that we haven't done for a bit. And I was talking to Gordy about maybe bringing that one back again. It's such a great song."

Favorite road song:
Ed Jurdi: "I don't know if I have one, to be honest with you. Lately, I've been listening to this Phil Cook record (Southland Mission) a lot, which I really like. There's a song at the end of the record, it's called 'Gone.' It's a good road song, for sure. It's got a really good vibe for driving down the highway."

Second in a three-part series. Publicity photo courtesy of the artist. Concert photo by Michael Bialas. For a limited time, the Band of Heathens are offering fans a free download to the track "Green Grass of California" from their most recent EP.