Local rock group Bread & Circus is frequently called a jam band. Its members have varying feelings about the description.
"We certainly have the capability—and sure, we've done it to indulge a crowd—but for our own personal gain, I don't think that's where we want to be," said drummer Mike Brother. "But you know, I'll take whatever tag they want to throw on us. I just like playing live music and being in a band."
Songwriter-guitarist Michael Blumenstein has a more pointed reaction.
"I kind of resent the idea that we're a jam band," he said. "I used to listen to a hell of a lot of jam bands, and my overriding issue with being labeled a jam band is [they're] good musicians but can't write a song to save their lives."
Blumenstein is happier with other descriptions he's heard.
"It's cool to meet people after our shows [who say], 'I really like you guys because you sound like 311,'" he said. "Or Dire Straits—people think that we sound like Dire Straits. We get Little Feat, this and that. I actually got a lady at a private gig up in Spokane, and she said we sounded like The Smiths."
"It was the quote on your guitar," Brother quipped. "She was subliminally [influenced]."
"Maybe," Blumenstein conceded. "[I've] got a sticker on my guitar from a Smiths song."
Whatever you might call Bread & Circus or hear in its music, you can't deny the band's talent. Brother's drums and Jon Engelund's bass create smooth, steady grooves that support Brady Meyers' sprightly mandolin and Blumenstein's slick, Jerry Garcia-influenced guitar solos. Blumenstein's literate, cryptic lyrics give the group's songs even more distinction, combining playful absurdity with jabs of social criticism.
Titanic Love Affair (self-released, 2018), the latest Bread & Circus album, captures the band's mix of quirky wit and musical dexterity. Boise music fans can hear that mix live when the group plays two record release shows at Pengilly's on Friday, July 13, and Saturday, July 14. Bread & Circus will also play an album release set at The Record Exchange on Wednesday, July 11.
- Courtesy Bread & Circus
In its own mellow way, Bread & Circus constantly upends expectations. For example, the band's sound may be steeped in Americana and Southern rock, but Blumenstein and company drew inspiration from a surprising number of English sources as young men.
"In high school, a friend of mine took me to see The Grateful Dead, and it was all from there down," Engelund remembered. "But I'll tell you what, they're not the band that made me want to play bass. Much like Michael's huge influence was The Smiths, the band that made me want to play bass was The Cure."
Blumenstein was—and is—even more of an Anglophile.
"Morrissey's way of being a complete, total smartass—you know, downtrodden kind of a guy but writing just amazing, highly intellectually based English pop music—big fan of that," he said. "And Belle and Sebastian, The Happy Mondays. I'm a massive Jam fan—I was a mod."
There's a certain irony to the band's name as well. The phrase "bread and circuses" comes from the Satires of Roman poet Juvenal; it refers to a strategy of keeping the masses docile through cheap diversions instead of substantive political action. Not only does the name hint at the streak of social protest in Blumenstein's lyrics, it adds a touch of acidity to the music's good-time vibe.
Bread & Circus doesn't want people to take its name too seriously, though.
"Milk Mustache was already taken," said Brother.
"I've told this to people before, but we're not an overtly political band," Blumenstein added. "I might slip in a little Donald Trump reference here or there, but nothing where we're gonna pound politics down your throat or anything."
Still, Blumenstein doesn't want to hide his distaste for conformity and rampant consumerism. That's why he included a lyric sheet in every copy of Titanic Love Affair.
"I still believe in this stuff," he said. "This is the way I learned every word to every Smiths song—by reading the lyrics. Not thinking I know the lyrics by hearing it over again but actually following along."
Bread & Circus hopes to get its songs out to more listeners soon. Blumenstein recently started a publishing company and has arranged to get the band's music onto all major streaming services. The group also hopes to have vinyl copies of Titanic Love Affair in time for the 2018 Hyde Park Street Fair.
Even if Blumenstein and his bandmates don't build a larger audience, he's proud of what they've achieved.
"We were a halfway legit little band, no matter where it goes from here," he said. "That's the main thing."