Good Old War – Harper’s Ferry, Allston, MA 10/3/09

by mikeflanagan1

Good Old War doesn’t make a whole lot of mistakes. Since the mellow pop-rock act Days Away split in (very) late 2007, Keith (Good)win, Tim Arn(old), and Unlikely Cowboy Dan Sch(war)tz haven’t missed a beat in establishing themselves as one of the best folk-pop groups rising in the industry. One would be hard-pressed to find a bad thing to say about the trio in the sea of glowing reviews that has flushed the crevices of the Web since they released their debut album, Only Way To Be Alone, on August 19, 2008. calls Only Way To Be Alone “an instant classic” while Itunes calls Good Old War “roots-rock innovators.” They’ve been compared to some of the most respected bands in rock history and recent times, from Crosby, Stills, & Nash to Wilco to the Beatles. Goodwin and Arnold bring the beautiful simplicity and clear-as-day vocals of Days Away to Schwartz’s flawless folk-rock songwriting he perfected with Unlikely Cowboy; the result is something so elementary and effective (also, affective) that they leave the listener wondering how the world had to wait until 2008 to experience such perfect simplicity.

I was fortunate enough to watch this band grow from the ground up. I was at their first show on Dec. 15, 2007 at Harper’s Ferry, the same venue where I would have my second encounter with them. The band was billed as Days Away, but I would soon find out that Days Away had broken up only two days before. My initial disappointment was squandered quickly underneath the marvelous strumming and nectar-sweet vocals for it to even realize itself. The set consisted of a few new originals that were thrown-together in the best possible way and two or three acoustic versions of Days Away songs. The new band capped off the set with an acoustic rendition of the Days Away classic “God and Mars” that can be described only by this video (in which lead vocalist Keith Goodwin looks a whole lot like Jason Schwartzman): 

I went to Harper’s Ferry again in the middle of an early-October afternoon to see Good Old War play to an enthusiastic crowd of mostly twenty-something college students. This was my second time seeing Goodwin, Arnold, and Schwartz together onstage and only my first time seeing them as a solid, in-it-for-the-long-haul band. Even so, the performance was makeshift as ever (the more you experience this band, the more you’ll realize there’s no such thing as a mediocre Good Old War set, no matter how unplanned or unpredictable). Because it was such an early show (doors were at 3:00pm), the van didn’t pull into the load-in dock until only about a half-hour before they were set to go on. So after a short, yet interestingly satisfying set by the possibly coked-up Cory Branan, Good Old War took the stage armed only with a single acoustic guitar in the skillful hands of Schwartz; their uncanny proclivity for making three-part vocal harmonies sound like one-part symphonies (I know that doesn’t make sense) allows them to travel light. 

A couple songs into the set, the lone guitar cable gave out. Rather than taking a minute or two to work with Harpers’ beardy sound guy to fix the problem, the guys decided to take a plunge from the 2-foot stage into the crowd to play the remainder of their set sans-PA. The one downside was that, since they moved to the middle of the crowd, I had gone from front row-center to about ten rows back. This, coupled with a lack of any lighting whatsoever, made it extremely difficult to film most of the performance. It sure was fun to watch though…they sounded perfect without any kind of assistance whatsoever.

Throughout the night tried to get an interview with Goodwin. I had talked to Good Old War’s press guy via email a few days before and he said he would let them know to expect me for an interview. I caught Goodwin while he was unloading merch and he said to come back later. I went back several times and each time he was a bit standoffish. Because I love the band’s music and have an enormous amount of respect for the way they conduct themselves in the business, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here…I guess I probably came off as more of a fan than a serious journalist anyway. After they played their set, I caught Dan as he was walking off the stage. For whatever reason, he was real enthusiastic about being interviewed, especially after I told him I went to Emerson (one of his best friends went to Emerson a few years ago). So we went into a back room as The Honorary Title soundchecked. I got a video of the interview and put it together in a package for my journalism lab:

My girlfriend did the voice-over. Read her blog:

I was going to post the uncut video of my interview with Dan, but the soundcheck made it virtually inaudible. Instead, I transcribed the entire conversation. Here it is:

Me: First of all, I read that you guys were recording two EPs, and then you changed your mind to do a full-length. Is there any progress on that?

Dan: Yeah, there’s a lot of progress on that. The reason we were doing the EPs was because we had so much music and we didn’t want to wait until like, the time for an album cycle to come out. But as soon as we were about to release one of the EPs, our album started to really sell. And in the meantime…you know, up until that point it was selling sort of modestly and now it’s starting to take off. So we didn’t want to just release something else that would mess that whole thing up. So instead, we just, you know, sat down and kept working and in the end we had way more than a full-length album. So we have extra songs, and we’re going to do a split with our friends Cast Spells. We have so many songs coming out…we can’t stop. But the full-length will be out early next year on Sargent House and it’s like a big rock-and-roll album. It’s great. It’s like, the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s awesome.

Me: That leads me to my next question. I remember seeing you guys a year or so ago. You were still billed as Days Away, so, naturally, I came in expecting to see Days Away and I saw you guys. At first I was confused, but then I just kept thinking that this was a direction I would have loved to have seen Days Away take, this is awesome. At that point, did you expect all the success or were you just kind of writing songs and seeing what happens?

Dan: We weren’t even writing songs at that point. We played our first show, it was in this room…ever. And Tim didn’t have sticks or brushes, he had to play with his hands. We were fully unprepared. It was supposed to be Days Away, but two days before, they broke up. We didn’t even call ourselves Days Away, we just played some Days Away songs. And I was like, I told Keith, “I have a couple songs.” We played like, I think we had “Window” back then I had around, and I had…I don’t know, it was like, three or four songs. “We’ve Come a Long Way” was around already. And we were just singing in the van on the way to the shows. By the end of the week, by the end of that tour, we knew what we were doing. But until that point, no clue. No clue. The fact that it ended up turning into a real band, turning into actually becoming our entire lives is a really nice surprise. Not expected.

Me: Okay, just one more thing…

Dan: Go ahead! I’m not going to be doing anything [laughs]. 

Me: Playing in the middle of the crowd…is that something you guys do often?

Dan: It’s something we had done a couple times when we had really bad sound…we just absolutely couldn’t find a way to make our sound good and still connect with the crowd. I think the first time we did it, for real did it, it was somewhere in Florida. We played a club that was just not equipped to handle a band. So we got up with just one guitar, the same thing we did tonight, and it was still too much for everybody. So we walked out into the crowd. Nobody even knew who we were, and it turned out to be one of the best shows I’ve ever played.  

Me: Well, it sounded great tonight.

Dan: Thank you. And it was awesome. It’s just amazing for us because we get to…that’s a huge rush to have everybody singing your songs back to you. And not just to see it, but to hear it. And you’re like, ‘oh, these people picked out their favorite harmony, and they sing that’. Or people make up their own harmonies. And that’s just…that’s just fucking awesome. 

Me: That’s great…thanks a lot!

Dan: No, thank you!

Me: You guys were incredible. I’ve always wanted to be in a band like you guys.

Dan: Thanks man! I’ve always wanted to be in a band like us, too. And I’m like, way older than you, and I just found the right people.

Here are some videos of Good Old War’s set (the parts I could film):

Intro + “Window”

“Weak Man”