Group breakups can be difficult and bitter events, where members can’t even stand being in the same room anymore. But when the Troubadogs decided to go their separate ways once and for all more than 20 years after their formation, their next step was unusual.
Now that they had broken up, they decided to record the group’s debut album.
The Troubadogs of La Crosse, disbanded for the first time in 2005, but the ‘Dogs’ have remained good friends. Over the years, they’ve done a few reunion gigs and, at the end of 2018, decided it was time to revive the band for real. By the end of 2019, the band were back in shape and looking forward to playing more shows. Between the pandemic and the life that bothers us, however, two key members had decided to drop out by the summer of 2020. Rather than going out on a low note, the group took the high road and did something that ‘they had never done.
Chris Van Alstine, one of the group’s three songwriters and the only Troubadog with extensive recording studio experience, came up with the idea: to record an album with four songs from each songwriter in the group. Even before the songs were chosen, the album title was decided. They picked “The Last Walk,” a nod to “The Last Waltz,” The Band’s epic finale (major influence and inspiration) and an irresistible chance to make another doggie joke. This is the leash they could do.
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Recorded, mixed and mastered at Blast House Studios in Madison with award-winning sound engineer Landon Arkens, “The Last Walk” has an organic feel that captures the dynamic and joie de vivre that the Troubadogs have always exuded in front of an audience. It is not an accident. The band recorded all the instrumental tracks live on the first weekend in the studio. On subsequent visits, the band created the lead vocals and meaty vocal harmonies for which the Troubadogs are known.
The album’s first track, “Down at Fox Hollow,” is an ode to the first place the Troubadogs played, a rural roadside tavern where the band’s journey began. Guitarist Randy Erickson wrote the song, which is reminiscent of the Kentucky Headhunters, after that Fox Hollow’s debut show, inspired by the enthusiastic crowd.
The album ends with Van Alstine’s “The Road Well Traveled”, a song he surprised the band with on their last gig in 2005. He performed the song solo in that first finale, but she got the full treatment on “The Last Walk”. The wives of the band members even contributed the harmonies for this powerful love song for The Troubadogs, arguably the best power ballad ever written on a bar band.
The 10 songs between “Down at Fox Hollow” and “The Road Well Traveled” cover a large part of the American musical map. Songs written and sung by Dick Mial, who plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the album, include two catchy folk-rock tracks, “Whole Life Mutual Blues” and “Estes to Beale Street”, and two more more moderate, the spare, elegiac “” Why Can’t I Sing “and” Youngstown, Ohio “, a propulsive ballad recounting the fall of a town from the Rust Belt and its hapless inhabitants.
Erickson’s ‘Mando Man’, a folk tribute to Mial and his mandolin playing, was written as Mial’s 50th birthday present at the start of the group. Mial, Erickson, and guitarist Tom Streicher were all working at La Crosse Tribune when the group was formed.
Erickson, who handles all of the electric guitar parts on the album, wrote “Higher Than High” as a rock twist on the lone trucker’s lament. “Must Be Love (or Something Like That)” was written in 1986, written just before Erickson had the courage to ask for a date with his future wife, the inspiration for the song. In the ’80s, the “Must Be Love” had a shredded new wave quality, but with The Troubadogs treatment it takes on a more pop-country-meet-Tom-Petty feel.
Van Alstine, who plays keyboards and harmonica and is the architect of the band’s vocal harmony sound, gives the Troubadogs a practice on the choruses of his “Lonesome Road”, a mix of rockabilly and doowop elements, and “Still Falling in Love,” which would have found its way onto AM radio’s pop playlists in the 1970s.
Drummer Ken Isler and bassist Dan Backhaus provide the solid backdrop for the group, who sings Van Alstine’s “Sometimes I Don’t Know How You Put Up with Me”, a languid country expression of gratitude and contrition towards a romantic partner, perfect for slow dances (or, as Backhaus calls them, “belly rubbers”).
With songs well crafted and polished by their many years of playing together, “The Last Walk” doesn’t feel like a debut album. This represents what a Troubadogs show would look like on the best night of their lives with a world-class sound engineer leading the board.
They won’t do a final star-studded gig to promote “The Last Walk” (unless Martin Scorcese comes in calling with an offer to film it). But then, the important thing for The Troubadogs has always been to make the best music possible while fixing the needle on the fun meter, not commercial worries. From the start, the group had a mantra: “Arf for the sake of arf.
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