Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs make uniquely Montanan folk rock

In the canons of music, there is a line to be drawn between technical masterpieces and real music. Music can be gorgeously crafted, full of complex counterpoints, harmonies and chordal variations, but still be drop-dead boring to listen to. And then, on the other side of the spectrum, there is the music that speaks to the plain folk in all of us. These songs don’t have melodies that require a physics degree to unravel — they are simple, enjoyable and often quite loud. Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs make music of the second kind.

If you’ve heard the Bird Dogs, you were likely at either a bar or a wedding. Though they have played some impressive venues (Red Ants Pants, for instance), the group has largely remained a group focused on small environments. And while they have enjoyed that aspect, fiddler and MSU student Brian Kassay says they are aiming to change that. “Bars are fun for dead seasons, but what we really love to play is festivals,” he said. The group has made a good start into that expansion — last year, they were awarded the Emerging Artist Award at Red Ants Pants Festival. This year, they will be playing at Headwaters Country Jam as a main stage artist. Kassay attributes some of this rising popularity to their new promoter, Chicken Jam West, which recently entered Gallatin Valley. “They’re kicking the Bozeman music scene into gear,” he said. “They’re not for the profit, they’re for the music.”

Promotion only goes so far, however — most of the band’s popularity is due to their unique sound. Looking at just instrumentation and songs, it is tempting to call them a bluegrass group. However, listening to their music, that distinction begins to blur. The Bird Dogs’ sound lacks the traditional atmosphere of bluegrass — it is sometimes difficult to find the traditional melodies in their energetic covers. “We certainly would say we’re more folk rock than bluegrass,” Kassay stressed. “Our sound is more energetic, and more rock-oriented.” You can hear that in the walls of sound the band sends out. Kassay’s sawing fiddle soars over Matt Demarais’s banjo and vocals and Ethan Demarais’s driving bass. Singer/guitarist Lena Schiffer’s voice is both refined and sharp as a knife, and gives the band a sound of rustic mastery.

Though the songs the Bird Dogs play are often old traditional standards, they are by no means outdated. “We’re big fans of taking 100-year old songs and making them cool,” Kassay said. The band’s influences include AC/DC, Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch and Tool. That multiplicity can be heard in their music — the grit and hard rock aesthetic of AC/DC mixes with the twang and dusty melodies of Old Crow Medicine Show. Cassette attributes the band members’ similar tastes to their musical success. “We are lucky in that we all have the exact same sound in our head. Some bands are tugged in different directions, but we all have the same vision.”

The final ingredient to the Bird Dogs is the crowd itself. “We play to people who aren’t music lovers,” Kassay explained. “With our stage presence, we can attract people by giving them something to watch.” At the Murray Bar in Livingston, that was strongly evident. Though the small floor was packed with dancers, the most active people were the ones on stage — stomping, leaping, nodding passionately to the music and making it perfectly clear they were enjoying the music as much as the crowd was. “We’re an unrefined party band,” Kassay said. And though they may not have the complexity of Bach, Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs have a lot going for them. The raucous applause at the dance’s finish was evidence enough of that.

Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs will perform at the Zebra Cocktail Lounge at 9 p.m. on Friday, March 4.