Fairbanks band lands success in hard work

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

FAIRBANKS - When Marc Brown was a teenager, he did some time as a musher, running dogs near his home in Huslia. It was enough to convince him to instead become a professional musician.

"Running dogs was hard work," he said with a laugh. "Playing guitar was more fun."

That's not to say fronting a band is exactly easy work. There is the revolving door of band mates, long hard nights on the road playing small clubs to small audiences. Or driving all the way to Anaheim, Calif., for a national battle of the bands competition and, despite a fourth place finish, coming home with only "a pat on the back and a 'good job."' Or heading out to play at a festival in San Francisco, only to be turned back at the border because the drummer (not the current one) had a previous drunken driving conviction.

"They wouldn't let us through the border. It turned out to be a long truck ride for three shows" in Canada, he said.

Yet, through the trials and tribulations of keeping a band together (which creates good songwriting fodder, and Brown has composed more than 160 songs), Brown and his Blues Crew have found enough success to avoid taking a day job. Currently, they are the Arctic Bar house band, playing every Thursday through Saturday evening.

Brown actually began playing guitar when he was just 4 years old. Playing music was a tradition in his family, dating back to his great-grandfather, and a good way to spend long winter nights in Huslia. His grandfather began teaching him old gospel and Athabascan fiddle tunes. But Brown's destiny was to play rock 'n' roll. His uncles gladly assisted this desire, furthering his guitar skills. In 1990, Brown brought his talent to Fairbanks and by 1994 had put together the first of many "interchangeable" bands that became his Blues Crew.

The name, however, has been nagging him of late. Though Brown said he can "play blues all night long" if called upon to do so, his original music is primarily rock, ala Tom Petty or John Mellencamp, with some classic rock covers mixed in.

"We were actually thinking of changing our name to the Marc Brown Band," he said.

"We play a lot of blues, there's just not much of an audience for it up here."

The band's current line-up includes: Jason Slats on saxophone and back up vocals, John Bringhurst on drums, bassist and UAF student Joe Campbell and Larry Cantil on harmonica and vocals. Campbell is the newest member, while Cantil and Slats have been with Brown since 1994 and 2000, respectively. The years playing together have created a tight outfit that operates with intuitive bliss.

"Sometimes we play the same note without even thinking about it," Brown said of his on-stage interaction with Slats. "We just smile."

San Francisco-based Alcatraz Records offered Brown a small recording contract, but he declined the offer, saying he could probably make more money self-releasing his album, as he has always done. To date, he's released seven albums and independently sold more than 13,000 copies in Alaska. The latest release is "Keep On Smiling," a live recording.

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