I have a new band crush. Well, actually, it’s not all that new. It’s been simmering for more than three years, since I first heard the Toughcats back in 2006. But it’s been re-ignited since I popped the band’s new album, “Run to the Mill,” into my car stereo and went for a drive. Three-piece banjo-suitcase-resonator bluegrass rock from North Haven? Be still my beating heart.
In the four years since the band’s debut album, “Pinata,” was released, banjo player Colin Gulley, guitarist Joe Nelson and drummer Jake Greenlaw have been across the country and back a number of times. They’re back in the state this week, with two shows coming up this weekend — 8 tonight at the Unity College Centre for the Performing Arts and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 13, at the Rockport Opera House, in a benefit concert for Partners in Health and their work in Haiti. After that, they’ll head to the rest of New England and plan to hit the West Coast this summer.
But despite their rambles, the Toughcats remain tied to Maine, their home and a continuing source of inspiration for their music. “Run to the Mill” is a smart, scrappy, utterly charming collection of upbeat rockers, sweet ballads and instrumental pieces, that feels as laid back as a beer after a long afternoon of mowing lawns.
It’s also been a long time coming for the band — they spent more than a year working on it.
“This album feels a little more refined and mature to us, even though it still came out very raw and live feeling,” said Gulley, who divides his time between North Haven and Portland. “We worked on it for quite a long time. We recorded a bunch of the songs a while ago, but we really weren’t happy with how they came out, so we scrapped them and redid a bunch of them. It changed pretty dramatically. We’re much happier with it now.”
For the Toughcats, the songs come first. They spend months playing new songs live before Nelson, also the producer, starts committing them to tape. There’s not a lot of patience when it comes to jam band noodling. That’s not their M.O.
“We’re pretty focused on writing really good songs and making sure they’re really well composed and well thought out,” said Gulley. “We don’t want to do anything resembling a jam band. That is not us.”
There are a few common themes throughout the Toughcats music — Beatlesesque pop harmonies here, freewheeling bluegrass pickin’ there — but at their core, the Toughcats are unorthodox. They’re funny. Jake Greenlaw plays a suitcase as part of his drum kit. They’ve always done it their own way.
“I feel like we’re a grass-roots kind of band. We’ve just played shows and built a following on our own. We didn’t want to just do things the way they’re supposed to be done,” said Gulley. “And we’ve gotten to work with a lot of incredibly talented people from all over Maine, and we’ve gotten to help a lot of really great causes.”
Being from Maine is something Gulley, Nelson and Greenlaw are very proud of. When they’re touring outside of the Northeast, they’re happy to be the first people from Maine — let alone the first from a Maine island community — that a lot of people have met. In between Toughcats gigs, all three work intermittently as carpenters, painters and lobstermen. They’re resourceful, hard-working fellows. But they’re artists, too.
“I see the Toughcats as kind of ambassadors for Maine,” said Gulley. “We play for a lot people who don’t know anything at all about Maine except where it is, just like there are some people who think Alaska is just mountains and Sarah Palin. I hope we can help develop a perspective for the state, and maybe get some folks to come out here. We feel a lot of Maine pride.”
The Toughcats play at 8 tonight at the Unity College Centre for the Performing Arts; tickets are $15. They also will play a benefit for Partners in Health at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 13, at the Rockport Opera House; tickets are $20. For more info, visit www.toughcats.com.