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Treefort performing at the Basement in Northampton. Left to right: Mark Turcotte, Paul Hansbury, Joe O'Rourke, Marcia Bergeron, and Bob Henness

Photo by Mark Roessler

The Rare and Wonderful Treefort

One of the best and most elusive Valley bands is discovered playing an amazing May Day gig at The Basement in Northampton.

 

By Mark Roessler

We got there a bit late, and Treefort was already playing.

Ever since my wife brought their album home a couple years ago, Girls Allowed has been in constant rotation on our stereo, and the songs have entered the lexicon of lyrics we spontaneously recite.

Jackie and Jon got married last night,
I bet he wore black, and I bet she wore white.
Friends and relations sure had a ball,
and somebody puked in the number one stall...

The more I listened, the more I wanted to know. The more I found out, the more my interest and enjoyment were piqued.

Their one and only album had come out in 1999, and I'd heard rumors that a second was all ready to go, but Paul Hansbury, their lead singer and songwriter, had to move out near Boston for a job, and it never got produced. Yet they still played three or four times a year. I wanted to see the band fueled by one stellar album that remains in action. If they ever went on before my bedtime, maybe I'd even get to talk to the elusive Paul Hansbury.

On May 1, the arithmetic seemed to work out.

The last couple of times my wife had seen the band, they'd gone on at 11, and the idea of staying up until two, only to be awakened at six by our 5-year-old, didn't appeal. Instead I'd opt for an early night watching the kid instead of paying a babysitter. But now they were going on at eight, there was no cover charge, and I had no excuse.

*

The Basement is aptly, if not creatively, named. Located beneath an empty store front next to the Northampton police department, the concert venue has a primitive bar (serving Chevrolet drinks with Rolls Royce prices) and no stage. Musicians play on a slab of cement in an available corner. Patrons crowd the beer taps, wobble on their stools, and mill about a few feet away from the headliners. The doorway, at the back of the building, is right next to the non-existent stage, which means latecomers, smokers, and all other traffic has equal billing to the performers.

For an intimate, hoedown feel, though, the place can't be beat.

The Basement was pretty well packed as my wife and friends and I paraded in in mid-song. Mark Turcotte was stretched out with his bass next to a couple of amps at the back. Joe O'Rourke was squeezed in the middle, pounding his drums with feverish glee. To the right, Bob Hennessy worked his electric guitar, infusing the songs with a country sensibility. Front and center were Hansbury on acoustic guitar and backup vocalist Marcia Bergeron. I think they were deep in the heartfelt drama of "House," a song about hoping to renovate a neglected family home. It opens and closes with praise for a bush that grows in the patio.

And the lilac bush has grown so high,
And it's grown so big and fruitful and strong
I couldn't stand to see it die.
Let the lilac bush live on!

Perhaps, if the electric guitarist's country roots were ever allowed to take over, the uplifting rock and roll melody would serve lyrics describing a wronged outlaw blasting his way to freedom. But one of Hansbury's remarkable abilities is to write powerfully about mundane tragedies and small blessings.

And the people painted vulgar words
On the door to my old room
But I don't care 'cause I use those words too,
And I got no fear of doom.

From his voice, I'd always pictured Hansbury as small, bald, angry and wiry—kind of like REM's Michael Stipe. It's a voice from the school of punk: Patti Smith's earthy snarl and pitch, with some of Gordon Gano's resonance and timbre. It's a distinctive voice that fits Treehouse's songs perfectly. No outlaw or rock and roll hoodlum here, just a working guy able to write about the tedium, absurdity and sublimity of it all, and then have the good grace to rock out about it. More Woody Guthrie than Gregg Allman.

But Paul Hansbury is tall and lanky, and when not belting out melodies with Marcia and the band, he doesn't look remotely punk. He seems relaxed, even. Wise eyes and a close-cut beard. A lot of the energy comes from those with whom he shares the stage.

Marcia stood in the center, hands in pockets, head tilted back to the mic, helping out with the harmonies and offering vocal counterpoint when necessary. Though her backing vocals are prominent on the album, until I saw her and Paul sing together, I hadn't fully appreciated the texture and warmth she provides the songs. Both the drummer and the guitarist were utterly engaged while playing, and then they beamed feverishly between numbers, hoping they could eke one more tune out of their friend. The bass player didn't move much from his dignified perch in the back, but he wore a handsome grin and appeared full of laconic comments.

After a few numbers, Marcia joined the crowd of friends and fans filling the cramped space, and the quartet blazed through a robust set of solid rockers. They played equally songs I was familiar with and material that was utterly new to me. Judging by the lip-syncing around the bar, though, the faithful were equally well versed in all the material. I heard no distinction between the new songs and the old: they were all unadorned, solidly-constructed songs laden with wit, melody and finger-licking, toe-tapping, boot-shuffling guitar riffs and served up without affectation, whining or gimmicks.

A lot of Hansbury's songs are funny ("I'm picking up nuances, and you ain't subtle"), but there's usually a hard edge. In even the warmest songs, rather than writing about the physical excitement or spiritual joy of love, he takes a practical look at the space between partners. One song, Alone, is all about him begging to be left alone in the hiding space he's been holed up in. Rather than being a romantic, he's pensive about relationships.

Midway through the evening, they broke into a cover of an early Beatles tune; it was remarkable how easily it fit in their set. As they tore through it and then segued back into one of their own tunes, it contextualized things for me. Though their one album was recorded in the late '90s, with decidedly punk leanings, Hansbury's influences are from decades further back. The days of vinyl. The era of Classic Rock.

Like those songsmiths, he builds songs that, in addition to being lyrically and musically sound, have an overall form that is architecturally interesting but never flamboyant. The epic about the dilapidated house lasts five minutes, but most of Treefort's tracks come in around three minutes or less. Their solid, detail-packed construction helps them stand up to multiple listens and has made them songs these performers want to keep playing.

The group also played covers of Creedence Clearwater and Warren Zevon, all of which shared the setlist comfortably with the original songs, but as guitarist Hennessy launched into a brashy, feedback-laden rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Give Me Three Steps, Hansbury scowled and off-mic said, "I don't know that one."

As things rumbled to a brief stop when a new direction was decided upon, I realized the sound that infused the songs wasn't so much country as southern rock. I appreciated the epic feel it lent to Hansbury's well-wrought observations of domestic life.

You read about things and don't tell me
You're looking at me like you want to melt me
And if that's not enough to make me turn on you,
You bring me up in conversation just to tell me what to do,
And you treat me like a parking valet.

 *

About two-thirds of the way through the evening, Paul said, only kind of jokingly, that he was hoping someone might tell him to finish up. Performing only three or four times a year, and practicing less, he finds that a night of serious rocking takes a toll on a family man, and though he soldiered on, clearly delighted by the reaction of the crowd, on occasion he allowed himself a hearty yawn.

The evening ended with the welcome return of Marcia Bergeron. And Dave Houton, the lead singer from Fancy Trash, joined in for a few songs, while Jason Smith, also of Fancy Trash, passed the tip jar around the room. A brief bout of dancing occurred, and after the mad applause threatened to bring the building down on us all, there was an encore.

As the band members laid down their instruments and headed for the bar, Smith verbalized what most of us were thinking: "That's some damn fine old-fashion rock and roll."

 

This story originally appeared in the Thursday, May 13, 2010
edition of the Valley Advocate. Used here with permission.

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