As I pulled up to Ben Gage’s North Hill home to sit in on a Gage Brothers rehearsal, I was excited. I’d seen them perform a couple of weeks before at their JamTurtle TV recording session, and I was eager to get to know the guys behind the music.
The evening at David Sullivan’s JamTurtle TV had been special. The small basement studio was packed with fans and loved ones who tried their best to wait until the video shoot was over to jump up and dance along. The guys were there to play for the camera and for the people, and they did not disappoint anyone.
Sullivan said of the evening, “The Gage Brothers are not only very talented musicians but they’re also a great couple of guys. They appeared on our musical performance Web series JamTurtle TV in early 2015 and within a few months my wife and I came to consider them family. They seem to have that same effect on everyone—they quickly endear themselves to audiences and other musicians, it’s incredible.”
He added: “They recently played JamTurtle again with their new four-piece line up and we had a packed house of folks from 7 years old to their late 50s, and by the time they wrapped the set the whole place was on their feet dancing and having a great time. That’s just the way The Gage Brothers roll.”
So far, what I knew about them came from watching their live performances. Onstage, The Gage Brothers are charming, focused and completely about the music they are making. As with the best folk and Americana artists, there is little pretense and lots of heart. Their performances are not about flash and showmanship. They take the stage earnestly with an eager-to-please attitude, and they play with confidence and an ease as natural as breathing.
I knocked on the screen door and entered the house to find Ben and Zach Gage setting up to play in the living room. As they welcomed me and offered me a seat they projected, as in performance, politeness and eagerness to please.
Soon to join us were the two newest members of the band: Chris Volpe and Brendan O’Malley. Volpe and O’Malley are each accomplished Cleveland musicians who already have successful careers with other bands. They met the Gages backstage at shows, and their backstage jamming led to the decision to combine their musical talents and expand The Gage Brothers to include Volpe and O’Malley.
A musical democracy
As the guys set up, they told me a little bit about their backgrounds:
Ben Gage plays the harmonica and the cajón, a wooden box that is played as a drum. He also acts as the band’s booking agent and press contact. His brother Zach plays the guitar. The two were born and raised in a large, hardworking, close-knit family in rural Rome, Ohio. They came to Akron to attend the University of Akron, and it is during that time their love of folk and Americana music was born.
One afternoon in early 2014, while jamming and harmonizing for fun, Ben and Zach decided to try their hand and at writing and performing professionally. As they began booking shows and honing original compositions, word began to spread about The Gage Brothers. After folks learned about the band, they kept coming back for more of their pure harmonies, honest musical stories, toe-tapping melodies and polite country-boy charm. They released their first album (“Take It Back”) in August of 2015 to rave reviews and scores of new fans eager to clap their hands and dance along to their music in venues across Northeast Ohio and beyond.
Chris Volpe, banjo and pedal steel guitar player for The Gage Brothers, has worked as a professional musician for more than 10 years. He has recorded three award-winning solo albums and has received critical acclaim for his music and live performances.
Brendan O’Malley plays the mandolin for the group, and, in addition to playing with The Gage Brothers, he also plays mandolin and performs some of the vocals for wildly popular Cleveland folk/bluegrass band Honeybucket, voted Scene Magazine’s best band of 2016.
By the time they were ready to play, I was up to speed about the histories of each of the guys and it was time to have a behind the scenes look at how they create those beautiful sounds.
They played each song repeatedly, trying new things, featuring different instruments, experimenting with everyone’s individual contributions and collaborating completely as they went along. When I later asked about this, about the seeming lack of one clear leader, they all quickly agreed that they didn’t have one. “We’re a democracy,” said Ben.
At one point they played “Kingdom Slum,” a song written and originally recorded on one of Chris Volpe’s solo albums.
As they played it and then played it again, I marveled at their process. First, they took a song that was not originally the band’s own and allowed their bandmate Volpe to shine individually. Second, Volpe was equally as generous, making sure every artist made their own mark upon the music. Third, they knew when they weren’t finished with the song, and when they were.
The first time they played “Kingdom Slum” I thought it was fantastic. When they wanted to do it again and tinker with it I wondered why – until they played it that second time and made it better. When they played it a third time I remember wondering why they didn’t just leave a good thing alone. The answer to that was in the playing. They were never going to be happy with just a “good thing.” All four musicians were in sync and all four knew they weren’t finished with their rendition of this song. The third time was the charm, and again, they all knew it.
After rehearsing a few more songs, they took a break, which gave us a chance to talk a little bit. I asked them about their musical influences. To my surprise, they didn’t give me the names of artists they liked growing up or bands whose career paths they wish to follow. Instead they talked about specific types of playing they have studied and how their love of the work of artists usually comes as part of that study. An example of this is Zach’s appreciation for Paul Simon’s guitar playing, specifically his finger style.
Next we talked about what their musical goals are. Again, I was surprised. They talked a lot about the joy of being able to create and play their music. They all agreed that someday being able to focus solely on the music and not worry about day jobs would be great, but none of them mentioned fame, so I did.
Ben sat speechless and deep in thought before saying, “That’s a weird question. I don’t even think about that. I just want people to listen (to the music) and like it.”
Zach added, “It’s not really about that. I just want to be able to support myself and play music.”
Volpe, who has shared a stage with some well-known artists in his time, said, “Fame is really just good advertising. That’s all it really means. Fame makes it easier for people to find the music.”
O’Malley, with a smile as pretty as his mandolin, chimed in, “It would be cool to be in a film, for a song to be in a film.”
They may not be interested in finding fame, but with a talent as big as theirs, it may just find them.
Says Sullivan of The Gage Brothers’ musical prowess, “Their songwriting and playing display a well of talent that is likely to entertain folks for years to come. Considering the short amount of time they have been playing out, it’s impressive how they have built a loyal fan base, a consistent network of venues that support them and the respect and friendship of their peers. Growing into a four-piece, the band has taken the sound up a notch. The addition of mandolin, banjo and four-part harmonies to their music has added texture and fullness to the songs. Zach and Ben’s vocal chops are impressive by themselves but with Chris and Brendan the harmonies are just beautiful. It really adds to an element that at times seems magical. The Gage Brothers can make you dance, hold hands and sway, sing along, feel nostalgic or just smile so hard it hurts.”
What is next for The Gage Brothers? Saturday, May 21, they will top the bill at a show at Musica in Akron. I would have included them anyway, but Ben, ever the sweet country boy, made a point to ask me to mention the artists opening the show, rock/folk fusion band Veseria and singer/songwriter Gretchen Pleuss. Ben said of Pleuss, “She’s really great and she should get some attention — and she really supports us.”
If you cannot get to their Musica show, do not worry. The Gage Brothers are booked almost every weekend through the summer for shows and festivals locally and throughout the country.
To learn more about The Gage Brothers and their event schedule, go to https://www.facebook.com/thegagebrothers/timeline.
To purchase tickets for the May 21 show at Musica, go to https://www.facebook.com/events/1745962192286735/.