Take the industry out of music, and it is an intimate affair. Songs speak to the basis of human emotion: joy and heartbreak, sadness and satisfaction.
Pete Lanctot ’09, front man of Pete + the Stray Dogs, a band known for its moody blues, brought this intimacy to Bethlehem when he returned to Lehigh Nov. 16 for a cabaret-style concert at Zoellner Arts Center.
“For me, music has always been a somewhat safe space to explore those ideas of being down and out, or loss or longing or sadness,” Lanctot said.
He recalled the feeling of being on campus in his early days of music and seeing the metal skyline, harking back to a booming industry long shuttered.
Coming back also carried feelings of triumph, as performing arts professors and former colleagues helped the Stray Dogs take the stage. After all, this was the place where Lanctot first conceived himself within the genres he favors: blues, Americana, country and folk.
Raised on classical training and studying music composition at Lehigh, Lanctot had a revelation when he was gifted the Anthology of American Folk Music, a catalog of folk, blues and country recordings from the 1920s compiled by the artist Harry Smith.
“That opened up my head,” said Lanctot. “Obviously, I took music seriously, but no one really hipped me to music outside of the mainstream.”
It was this anthology and collection of folk music from the Caribbean, the British Isles and the Southern United States that brought his own music into focus. These songs were sung not by highly trained experts, but by regular people of average ability, who sang from the heart.
“In lieu of any sort of professional, polished product, you get people who are singing because they need it—because they love to sing,” said Lanctot. “That really blew me away.”
Another new avenue for Lanctot was the way a song’s form could be restructured and reimagined when cultures intersect. Recordings of Cajun dance music from the early 20th century showed self-taught musicians approaching their work with a wider sense of creativity, bringing new takes on blues beats and pieces that could not easily be categorized.
“All this cross-pollination, all these different [influences],” Lanctot said, noting the Caribbean and Northern Canadian sounds that intertwine in Cajun beats. Perusing these early songs, Lanctot was intrigued to hear the bluesman Lead Belly playing jazz tunes and Robert Johnson, said to have made a deal with the devil for his guitar fame, playing ragtime and pop.
“They weren’t pigeonholed in any way to play the music that ended up on a lot of their records,” he said, noting that it was record producers and industry executives who often determined the brand for which an early star would be known.
“It reminds me a little of the New York music scene, where I don’t know anyone who’s just doing one thing.”
Back home in New York City, Pete + the Stray Dogs is right in this mix. Stray dogs have come and gone over the six years since the band’s formation, and the music, too, is mutable. Beats and styles move easily between indie, blues, country and folk, and songs chart their own course between genres.
“I don’t think we fit directly into any one scene in New York,” said Lanctot, noting that the band’s experimental and freewheeling nature has some overlap with the city’s punk and noise music scenes.
“We’ve been describing ourselves recently as Americana via the New York DIY scene,” he said. “That pushes us out of straight-ahead Americana.”
And while folk bands can be plagued by a quest for authenticity, affecting a sound untouched by commercial blight, theirs is unselfconscious.
“We’ve gotten way less precious about being quote-unquote ‘authentic’ to the style,” said Lanctot.
Authentic or no, the music is true to itself, with a blend of influences that forms a sound unique to the band. The haunting Walk Right, a bluesy piece that plays on early ballads, and Going to the Garden, a country song with a cheerful but wistful tinge, are two examples.
As the band prepares this year to record its third album, Lanctot will work with his wife, Ginger Dolden, who is both bandmate and visionary partner, along with their third member, Adam Brisbin, to determine their next moves.
“Ginger and I have been talking a lot about this over the past year and trying to figure out what are we, what do we do and where do we fit,” he said.
The Stray Dogs’ previous two albums were recorded in Nashville, Tenn., the first in a weekend and the next in one dynamic if frenzied week. This time around, the band is taking it slower and going deeper, recording in New York.
But as the sound matures and evolves, the band’s core sensibilities will remain, according to Lanctot.
“The roots of what we’re doing have not changed,” he said.
It was that first album, or rather paying for it, that brought about their other project. Lanctot and Dolden, both music teachers in Brooklyn, N.Y., launched Bantam Studios, a music school for adults with little background in music.
What started with 30 students nervously sipping drinks—a draw for the studio— is now a popular entrée into music for those with a taste for experimentation, with more than 300 adults learning guitar, violin, ukulele, electric bass and more. The pair plans to add banjo and upright bass to the mix this year.
A community has formed around the school, with nascent musicians coming together to jam.
“It’s really brought together this incredible, strange, diverse group of people who might not have had any interaction,” he said.
The band is looking forward to a busy year, planning tours in Europe and on the West Coast in 2019. But Lanctot said he and Dolden are not worried about the future.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said, “and make things that we like and want to put out into the world."
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