Wisconsin rockers, back from 8-year break, come to the Pageant with a familiar sound -- the one triggered by "Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams."

By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

August 26, 2004

Love and hope and sex and dreams. It's a blueprint that has worked for the BoDeans since the Wisconsin rockers borrowed that phrase from the Rolling Stones' "Shattered" and used it for the title of the band's first album in 1986. Now, after an eight-year break since the release of the CD "Blend," the BoDeans are back with "Resolution." And their playbook remains mostly unchanged.

Guitarist-singer-songwriter Sam Llanas, reached last week before sound check for a show in Indianapolis, says the band, which plays the Pageant on Saturday, felt no pressure despite the long layoff.

"We haven't really changed what we do at all," he says. "We haven't reinvented ourselves."

The BoDeans -- Llanas, partner Kurt Neumann and bassist Bob Griffin, rounded out on tour by drummer Kevin Leahy and keyboardist Bukka Allen -- kept the flame burning and their fans happy with occasional tours, including a stop at Mississippi Nights two years ago.

So what were they doing? Llanas and Neumann each put out a solo album, but mainly they were taking care of business.

"We had some personal things that got in the way, and we had to clean everything up before we could move forward," Llanas says. "We had problems with (band) management, and that prevented us from releasing a record for a while, but we never broke up."

Breaking up would be unthinkable for Llanas and Neumann, who met in high school in Waukesha and have been playing together since 1983. Alone, their voices are fine. Llanas', in fact, is somewhat quirky, kind of like Herve Villechaize's on "Fantasy Island."

Together, however, there is a magic in their harmonies that has been compared to the Everlys and other great sibling acts.

Llanas says there was no epiphany that formed either the friendship or the singing partnership. He and Neumann met through a mutual friend in study hall and began hanging out together, discovering that they both liked music.

"Kurt played drums at that time, and neither of us played guitar," Llanas says. "We played with some other guys now and then, but it was not really a band."

Finally, Llanas says, he and Neumann decided "that when we sang together, it was a lot more powerful than when either one is singing by ourselves, so if it was just going to be the two of us, I'd better learn to play the guitar."

From T-Bone to "Party"

"Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams" was a roots-rock blast of fresh air in 1986, produced by a relatively unknown T-Bone Burnett who went on to produce the music for the recent "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Cold Mountain" soundtracks. "Love & Hope," which contains concert mainstays "She's a Runaway" and "Fadeaway," introduced the ringing guitars, hook-filled melodies and harmonies that have served the BoDeans well ever since.

But the band's biggest hit -- really its only hit -- was also the most unexpected. In 1993, the BoDeans released the album "Go Slow Down." Three years later, the album track "Closer to Free" was chosen as the theme song for the TV show "Party of Five" and reached No. 6 on Billboard's Top 40.

Neumann told The Boston Globe earlier this year: "Normally, you release your record and you go to radio and you try to create a hit. It wasn't like that for us. ... Somebody just found that song and liked it and wanted to use it on the show. Then, someone on the radio side was hearing it on the show and went back and looked for it. Somehow, it just snowballed, and we really didn't feel like we had anything more to do with it than writing the song."

Today, it's still all about the writing for Llanas and Neumann, who credit songs under both names.

"But we don't really write together," Llanas says. "When we feel we have something to present, we bring it in. The other guy will say, 'I don't think that's very good,' or, 'This isn't working, try this.' But sometimes it works, and we leave it alone."

For example, on "Resolution," the band's seventh studio CD, Llanas wrote the ballad "Nobody Loves Me" as a "very quiet, very folky kind of song. I was using the guitar, tapping on it like a drum. It worked really well and was a good thing, but it just wasn't right for the record."

After Neumann worked on it, the song was transformed into a powerful ballad with an insistent beat.

Neumann brought in "(We Can) Live," but it didn't become the rocking anthem it is on the CD until Llanas adapted it to his strumming style on acoustic guitar.

And there's a good reason Llanas plays acoustic guitar: He's not much interested in things that plug in. He doesn't even own a computer.

"I'm kind of waiting," he says. "I'd like to be able to talk to it and not (mess) with it. I want to tell it what I want it to do. I'm not really technically inclined. That's why I play acoustic guitar. You don't have to plug it in, it's always there. That's just kind of my personal makeup. Kurt's just the opposite -- he always has the latest gadget, that's who he is."

"Sunday afternoon" music

Llanas is told that the Web-based All Music Guide, which assigns "themes" to every artist, has the BoDeans pegged as "Sunday afternoon." Llanas was at a loss to guess what AMG might mean by that, but he was flattered to be listed with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Arlo Guthrie, George Harrison and the Byrds.

"That's not bad company," he laughs. "Actually I could see the last three songs (on 'Resolution') being Sunday afternoon," referring to the down-tempo "All Better Days," "Slipping Into You" and "Once in a While."

But Llanas says the goal for most of "Resolution" was to come up with up-tempo, "pretty positive, driving-along music. We wanted to put out a record that was just fun to listen to. We wanted it to be light and positive, even though it's really not (lyrically). It's hard for me to be that way most of the time. I just naturally gravitate to darker themes. I like writing about people on the brink of something or in trouble."

Llanas is philosophical about those who would find the BoDeans' lack of change a bad thing.

"You really can't win," he says. "You just do what you do, and that's the most important lesson we ever learned.

"We pretty much tend to write about love and hope and sex and dreams. We have an original sound because of our voices, and that's us, for better or worse."