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Clubland: Challah, beer and overflow crowd welcome Northampton's Pale Cowboy’s new EP at release party

I had a once-local friend visiting me last weekend, eager for updates on the music scene. “Discovered any good new bands lately?” he asked, and I immediately thought of the Northampton-based Pale Cowboy, which was pretty new to me (even though the band blossomed in its current form at Hampshire College in 2009).

My laptop was hooked up to the stereo and I eagerly typed us over to the quintet’s Bandcamp page and blasted “Loneliness Called,” the first song of the group’s that grabbed me. Phoebe Berkel sings a piano ditty à la early Of Montreal, but the swingy singsong melody immediately grabs your hand and steps through the looking glass into unpredictable territory: sudden minor chords, a sonic hailstorm of battering ominous notes, and out the other side into a different song entirely.

I played some of my other favorite songs from the band’s “Life Nature Library” EP: “Don’t Wanna Discuss,” a highly catchy tune which harnesses the same distorted chug as Blitzen Trapper’s great “Wild Mountain Nation” album; “Hurts Too Bad,” a tiptoeing pop tune in an odd meter that blends girl-group, bossa nova and Americana influences; and “Water,” a gentle country-ish two-step with harmonies, diminished chords and a radiant key change. My friend was sold and made a note to investigate.

We sat around listening to other music for a bit. “Anything going on tonight? Any shows?” he asked.

The fog in my mind must have been incredible because it took a minute of mental sifting before it hit me: “Oh! Pale Cowboy is playing!” I looked online for when, exactly; my heart sank. “The show started 45 minutes ago.”

We optimistically jumped in the car and headed to Flying Object in Hadley, where the parking lot was overflowing with cars and water. Raw rain pelted everyone running for cover. And inside: a throng of warm people filling the room to the door, homemade challah bread, and apparently some luck, because the band was just about to start.

The highly original Pale Cowboy began with, of all things, a cover, a straight-ahead version of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” For this short guy in the back, it was hard to see the band beyond the dense crowd of fans, but easy to dance to the thumping disco rhythm. It felt like a party already, which is what frontman Karl Helander and the band were going for, as he said in an interview earlier this week.

“We really wanted to have a bash [at] a venue that would allow the night to feel like equal parts party and concert. Flying Object, a great resource for the arts in this area, turned out to be perfect for it. We’re really grateful that they welcomed us there.”

Helander and the rest of Pale Cowboy — Berkel on vocals, keyboards and percussion; Maxwell Wareham on lead guitar and vocals; Andy Cass on bass; and Aaron Moon (Helander’s cousin) on drums — worked hard for a party vibe because the night was celebrating the release of the band’s new five-song “Shelter” EP, which was completed thanks to people contributing to the band’s Kickstarter campaign.

The band’s second song was the fabulous “Loneliness Called,” which my friend had just heard for the first time a half-hour before. He turned to me all giddy, getting to hear it so soon in a live context. Berkel nonchalantly wound her voice through the melodic twists and turns. She was responsible for baking the tantalizing loaves of challah bread over by the door, there for the slicing (with a knife balanced on a soft stick of fancy butter).

“It’s her family’s recipe,” Helander said. “She wanted to give the party a homey touch, something special and personal. We also figured it’d be a good complement to the beer.”

Pale Cowboy finished its set by playing the “Shelter” EP in its entirety. It features new versions of two of the best songs from the previous release (“Don’t Wanna Discuss” and “Water”) and a more cohesive, produced sound (the five songs were recorded and engineered by bassist Cass).

“Life On the River” was a highlight, with Helander and Berkel harmonizing lazily over a boogie groove borrowed from the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

The ever-changing, always-creative Fab Four are a big influence on Pale Cowboy, which also has three songwriters in the band (Helander, Moon and Wareham).

“We’re all drawn to music that surprises,” Helander said. “I think we are all a bit restless, and that’s definitely a driving force. At its best, it’s really all about play.”

And the play involves hard work, too. Now that the EP is out and in people’s hands, Pale Cowboy’s big goal is to make a full-length album. Helander said they’re writing new songs all the time (some of the most striking tunes at the Flying Object show aren’t found on their two releases, an exciting and promising discovery for any fan of a band) and they’re hoping to expand their gigging territory — though they’re already planning a return to Flying Object on Aug. 12, so mark those calendars.

“We’re not in this as a hobby,” Helander said. “We want to be the next great band.”

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