An edited version of this article appeared
in Dirty Linen Folk & World Music Issue #78 October/November
TEMPEST: Ten Electric Years
For a decade now, Tempest has been storming across the US and Canada delivering their unique style of Celtic rock ‘n’ reel, all with the fiery energy and creativity that fueled the band in the beginning. “I had played for so many coffee houses and folk concerts and I was tired of people knitting in the front row. I wanted to sweat on them and I wanted them to get up and dance.” explains charismatic bandleader, mandolin player and lead vocalist Lief Sorbye. Incorporating Celtic, Norwegian, European and other styles of traditional music, Tempest presents their music in a rock format that appeals to a broad spectrum of audiences, all the while remaining true to the roots of the music they’re interpreting.
Born in 1957 in Oslo, Norway, Sorbye grew up with a passion for music, first playing the Youth Club circuit with his teenage friends, later with a blues/rock band named Aktela in the early 70s doing covers of Free, Rory Gallager and the Guess Who. At first he tried the electric guitar as his instrument of choice at age seven (resulting in bleeding fingers), but “1972 was the end of my being an aspiring guitar player” when the bandleader asked him to stick to vocals. While picking up flute and harmonica to fill out their sound, he started dabbling in folk music. Though his initial inspiration and the use of folk music in a rock context was Bob Dylan, his discovery of The Incredible String Band (namely Liquid Acrobats As Regards The Air) opened his eyes and ears to the use of exotic instruments and the mixture of folk with other styles of music. Though he had learned traditional Norwegian folk songs at school they were considered ‘uncool’ at the time. But as he started following bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the whole British folk-rock scene blossoming at the time, Lief became more and more interested in his own native music of Norway and its potential in a rock setting.
As his interest grew, he introduced new and fascinating instruments like mandolin and banjo to his band mates, resulting in his first folk/rock band named Evil Delight that copied the Fairport and Steeleye sound but adapting Norwegian traditional music. This soon became just Delight, utilizing acoustic instruments and adding a fiddle player. Around this same time, Lief soon discovered his other passion: travel. With a friend he journeyed across Europe during the summers, taking up the life of a busker. Amazing things happened when he played music: girls wouldn’t leave him alone, complete strangers threw money at him and free drinks were abundant! Especially tasty (and strong) was Elephant Beer from Denmark, which inspired the lads to play for a few hours in the morning until enough money was gained for this delicious treat. By 1977 he decided that “music was a lifestyle, not just a job”. In fact he’s never worked a ‘straight’ job! With this new approach to life, Lief traveled Europe, always moving to warmer climes when the weather threatened the busking life style. By 1978, having tired of Europe, he bought a one way standby ticket to America and arrived in New York in the summer.
Spending the summer busking from coast to coast, his act expanded, at first with a dancing girl while he played mandola with bells on his feet, later with a friend that had a python. After having been busted in Boston, he obtained his permit, but unfortunately the talented reptile wasn’t allowed the same luxury and gracefully retired. While always concentrating on British Isles, Celtic and Scandinavian traditional music, he and his busking partners found that the fastest and loudest songs always garnered the most coin. But as winter approached in the north and performers were forced into the subways, the glamorous, romantic part of this lifestyle paled in comparison to the harsh reality of finding food and shelter. Hence, onward to the open, welcome atmosphere of San Francisco where a bigger folk scene was happening.
After spending time in San Francisco, a bit of a sojourn in Galway on the west coast of Ireland and some time at home, he finally returned to the Bay area for good in 1979, where he met up with Paul Espinoza and Margie Butler. The three of them formed Golden Bough, performing a gentler, more sedate style of Celtic music than he was usually involved with. This formation resulted in the end of his wild, freewheeling lifestyle. More mature, he decided his goal had changed: he would still perform music, but in a more organized way. His professional relationship with Golden Bough lasted for eight years, six albums and several tours of Europe and the US. By the end of the 80s, he had a cleaner lifestyle and a limitless store of energy that allowed him to jam with other musicians during his off time. “This fiddler in San Francisco was quite a bit of an influence on me. He had been playing with Queen Ida’s band for years and he was a Cajun fiddler, but he played with rock and roll energy. I’d forgotten how great it felt with a solid backbeat and some power chords.” The band Le Rue, named after their lead fiddler, was the initial inspiration that turned Lief onto bringing a rock band into the traditional music world. Coming full circle from his youth, Lief had a burning desire to get a rock band going, but taking his traditional music experience and combining it with that rock ‘n’ roll energy. After Golden Bough displayed little interest in his new idea, overnight Lief decided to form Tempest in 1988. “The way I went by it, I did some demos with my friend Ian Butler. He had a home recording studio and taking a handful of songs I wanted to do, laid down some electric guitar, bass and drum tracks.” Then he started shopping it to musicians in the Bay area that he thought might be interested in his project, the caveat being they had to be rock musicians. “When you only get folk musicians to plug in, you don’t necessarily get the energy I was looking for. I wanted to be the only folkie in the band, giving the source material to the rock musicians and see what they could do with it, what their approach would be. I was after an energy in traditional music that I was hungry for and didn’t see anyone else projecting.”
Forming the band was a relatively easy task. Mark Showalter (nicknamed Showy), a local bassist, was first enlisted and rehearsals started. Rob Wullenjohn was originally a bassist, but Tempest was his first job as a guitarist, bringing a bluesy, San Fran psychedelic style to bear on the traditional music. With a drummer, they were working toward their first gig on October 20, 1988 at a Berkeley club. The word was out in the folk community and the reactions were mixed, many disappointed and some even angry that Lief would leave Golden Bough to form a rock band. The night before the show, the drummer bailed out, leaving a note on his mailbox. With less than 24 hours to come up with a replacement, Lief enlisted the talents of Adolfo Lazo, a local drummer. Adolfo recalls “learning the material from a demo tape in the car and practicing by drumming on my lap. The first time I met Rob was when I went on stage. I couldn’t play all the material due to its complexity, sitting out on some songs.” After a standing ovation and a big buzz from finally being able to play electric again, Lief and Tempest were off on a West coast tour. “The name Tempest originated from my feelings of the band being like an explosion or storm, being able to take the stage and crank it up and generate enough energy to play for a dancing crowd”. Showy, who dressed in a kilt and had his bizarre version of Celtic dance, only stayed for the first few months, long enough to record their debut album entitled “Celtic Rock” (the infamous purple cassette). Not wanting to imitate other folk/rock bands like Fairport or Steeleye, by adding a fiddle player, multi-instrumentalist Ian Butler was recruited for bass duty and the band remained a four-piece unit for four years. In the early days of the band, Lief found that he couldn’t just use pickups on the mandola. It didn’t really cut through the heavy barrage of sound, so he designed the double-neck electric mandolin, using the top to carry a melody line and playing accompaniment on the octave mandolin neck. This instrument debuted on their second album, Bootleg; a powerful follow-up that presented more original material grounded in the traditional Celtic style of playing.
By 1992, with better paying gigs and having established a foothold in both the rock and folk worlds, Tempest was ready to experiment a bit and inject more energy into the shows by adding a fiddler. Though Michael Mullen primarily played country music and hadn’t played Celtic music, his enthusiasm and excitement for the music got him the pivotal role in the new lineup. It was no gamble for an independent record company to record a Tempest album due to their grassroots fan base and being such a strong live act. Now with a new lineup and a record deal with the Oregon label Firebird, Tempest recorded what is probably their most popular CD to date: Serrated Edge, an album mostly comprised of traditional material. It was a loosely connected conceptual album that tied in with a series of novels by fantasy writer Mercedes Lackey, the chapters and some characters based on traditional songs like “Tam Lin” and “Mad Tom of Bedlam”. This connection with Lackey broadened their audience to include a much younger clientle, including Lackey’s fan base of teenage girls. The band kept getting complaints from girls who were too young to attend their shows and requests to do underage shows. But Lief and the band consider this a plus: “I love to play for younger audiences, but I love to play for the grannies too. My favorite audience is when they come out together, 3 generations of one family, the kid with the mohawk and the dad is a folkie and the granny is out to hear the Irish ballads.”
Tempests’ live performances have always been an integral part of the album making process, a testing ground for new material that allows the audience to guide the bands evolution. Whether playing for sell-out crowds at the Cropredy Festival for over 20,000 people or 75 in an intimate venue, Tempest feeds off the energy and mood of the crowd. Just as important as the notes and the chemistry of the band members is the chemistry between the band and the audience, which Lief assesses as one of the most important goals of the band. “When they leave the show, I hope we lifted their spirits and gave them an experience that can help them in this troubled world. When I see them having a good time, I realize we’re doing more than just playing the right notes, we’re actually feeding the human spirit.” Their quirky, tongue-in-cheek stage movements are a part of Tempest that has been there since Day One. Band members seem to end up acting like clowns not long after joining, participating in what Lief calls a ‘mock rock show’ with a bit of Spinal Tap routine. They sometimes get so wild the choreography has to be arranged so members don’t brain each other with their instruments. Guitarist Dave Parnall recently was blooded by Jon Land’s bass during a performance, an initiation that Parnall relishes. Tempest may take their music very seriously, but never themselves. Though Celtic music is arrangement intensive, there’s always room for a blistering guitar or electric mandolin solo. A staple of the show, the occasional encore of “Locomotive Breath”, actually started out as a joke. But the audience was so receptive, it stayed in the show and they were asked to contribute the song as part of the Jethro Tull tribute album To Cry You A Song.
Their next album Surfing to Mecca saw Mullen depart and Irish/Scottish fiddler Jon Berger climb onboard. Lief recalls his energetic audition quite well since he still has marks in the ceiling from Jon’s bow hitting the ceiling. There was a lot of experimentation going on at this time with Rob exploring Middle Eastern music, Lief and Ian looking at country feeling material and even polkas, two-steps and surf music being injected into the mix. This resulted in their most stylistically wide-ranging album ever, which led Lief to critically comment “There’s good and bad material, but it’s a true picture of where the band has been. The band that recorded Surfing to Mecca is much better than the band you hear on the album. Too much experimentation made us lose focus.”
The move to Magna Carta, a progressive rock label, may seem like a stretch for both the label and a traditionally based group, but historically the British folk/rock movement came out of the same area as the progressive rock movement. Rock and roll branched out, some bands taking classical or jazz inspiration, others taking inspiration from folk music. Lief comments that “I consider Tempest to be a progressive folk band. We never really fit in anywhere. We’re not a folk band, not a straight rock band and we’ve tried to find our own place.” Their first album with the label, Turn of the Wheel, is very much a studio album, involving more pre-production than Tempest had ever used before. Magna Carta didn’t change their music, but did assign Robert Berry as producer to achieve as sophisticated a sound as possible. Turn of the Wheel actually marked a return to their classic sound, refocusing the band after the rather musically schizophrenic Surfing to Mecca. For the first time, keyboards were utilized to fill out their already strong, complex sound. Initially Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep was asked to contribute, but it soon became apparent that Robert Berry (a talented multi-instrumentalist) was the right person for the job. Berry is considered to be the 6th member of the band, a producer that’s easy to communicate with and understands what Tempest is trying to achieve. Due to his former association with the band 3 (with Keith Emerson & Carl Palmer), Robert and Lief asked Emerson to contribute an atmospheric opening for “The Barrow Man”, something Emerson feels is more in the spirit of his old band The Nice than ELP. After the recording of their first Magna Carta release Jon Berger left the band and old friend Michael Mullen returned, anxious to devote his musical abilities to the study of Irish and Scottish fiddle.
After a lengthy tour during the spring of 1997, Tempest went back into the studio on May 1st for the recording of their latest effort. This release was a complete reversal of approach: their pre-production was the roadwork, the recording took about half as long and they brought a ‘live’ feeling to the album. They played the songs in the studio just like they had performed them on the road, achieving a tone that was as close to a live feel without recording live. Whereas the previous album was multi-tracked and built from layers, this album had the band playing one song a day. When they got a good take, they mixed it down. Same studio, same producer, but a radical change in method produced what many consider their best album. Tempest has always considered themselves a ‘live’ band, best experienced in a concert setting, and The Gravel Walk perhaps reflects the energy, style and range of the band better than any recording.
Tempest was formed with a very specific purpose and Lief Sorbye has stuck to his vision of what the band will be. Their musical policy is to play traditional music with rock ‘n’ roll intensity and also write original material with an Euro/Celtic feel. With their firm foundation, Tempest can still experiment while keeping the songs walking down the traditional path. With the introduction of new band members Jon Land and Dave Parnall the band is coming full circle again and, oddly enough, making Tempest one of the tallest bands in the world (or so Lief claims), with Lief, Dave and Jon standing at 6’2”, 6’3” and 6’6” respectively. New Mexico native Parnall brings a Bachelor’s in Composition and Performance, lessons under a classical guitarist in San Diego and a year in Spain studying with flamenco masters to the mixture of talent in the band. His classical and flamenco training provides some interesting twists to the original Tempest sound, but don’t be deceived by this high culture. Since graduating college Parnall has played in several rock bands (one a Southern Culture on the Skids-type group called Trailer Park Queen) and with Tempest his energetic approach and rock guitar chops will put you in mind of Joe Satriani and other rock guitarists with a classical approach. Though grounded in different musical influences, Parnall has no plans to deviate from the Celtic rock foundation: “My approach is affected by different music I’ve been exposed to, as opposed to actual practice of playing this music with Tempest. Anything I add in terms of flamenco or classical has to work within the context of the band.”
Bay Area native Jon Land comes from a folk/rock background, having played with Phoenyx and the Celtic rock-oriented Coyote Pudding (an opening act for Tempest several times), and his bass playing, more than any other bassist Tempest has had, keeps a steady rhythm and rocking beat. “I’m sometimes paring down the arrangements to their essence as opposed to adding material. I’m playing the essentials and allowing the other instruments to really shine. I’m playing a 5 string with an extra string below the E, so I can get a very low D that locks everything down. It’s more satisfying to me than a quick lick, staying down low.” Though an excellent player, he doesn’t set out to wow you with too many notes and attempts to play overt melodies or counter-melodies. He experiments with playing the melodies on the bass, but uses open strings and hammer-ons to create a legato, drone effect by not playing all the notes of the melody.
Hailing from Cuba originally (he left when he was 7), moving to Spain and later to the Bay Area, percussionist Adolfo Lazo is the other half of the rhythm section providing the steady backbeat and driving rhythm needed by Tempest. Initially using the sticks out of coat hangers and old Jackson Five records, he started his drumming career at home after aborted attempts at accordion and bass. Growing up in the projects, his musical influences was the funky soul music like Bootsy Collins and the Ohio Players, not traditional Cuban or Spanish music like you would think. During high school he played in all the school musical groups: marching band, orchestra and jazz band. His first drum kit, a Gretch purchased in the early 80s, is still the drum kit he uses with Tempest. Lazo remembers “borrowing CDs from Lief to get an idea of Celtic music. But what we were aiming for wasn’t necessarily a traditional sound, duplicating a traditional jig drumbeat, but taking those jigs and reels and rocking them out. I play simple, but solid.” Commenting on his relationship with Land, Adolfo feels “that for the first time we have a real groove going on and we provide a real firm foundation for the band.”
It seems that every band member agrees that Michael Mullen is the wildest man on stage, a dervish that rarely stops gyrating and pulsating. At times Lazo can barely control his laughter at Michael’s antics, but at the same time he feeds off that boundless energy. Michael started playing violin at age 6 and later went to college on a violin scholarship. After departing the Air Force, Michael started playing with a country band in Fresno. Meeting Lief in 1992, he joined Tempest, recorded the Serrated Edge album and toured extensively. He feels that he still had a classical sound at that time, “I hadn’t started thinking like a fiddler yet. I was still thinking about music and playing in the old patterns I had grew up with. Even though I was playing country fiddle and Celtic fiddle, it still came out sounding classical, at least to my ears.” Michael left the band for a few years, returning in 1996 for the Turn of the Wheel tour. “When I got back into Tempest I started examining the differences between the fiddle and the violin and then decided to specialize in Celtic fiddling. I took a different approach from the first time I was in the band and totally dove into Irish/Scottish playing.” To boil it down, he thinks that whatever the style, when you play violin you’re supposed to play it right, when you play fiddle you’re supposed to play it cool. With the fiddle you’re freer to express yourself, making a more emotional and passionate statement. And his style certainly shows that passion and emotion, both onstage and in the studio. While perfecting his traditional playing, Mullen is currently resurrecting some jazz elements in his playing, mostly due to his love of Rick Sanders’ style of English, jazz and swing.
Another thing every band member agrees on is the diligence and commitment that Lief Sorbye brings to the band, allowing a democratic atmosphere where everyone’s ideas are welcome as long as it fits the musical policy. Several members say they appreciate the fact that the band has left their egos at the door to focus on what’s important: making music and having fun. For Sorbye, Tempest can sometimes mean 10% traditional music, 10% rock-and-roll and 80% phone calls for management purposes. Land says that “it’s nice working with someone who, on the one hand, is so organized, but on the other hand is not a power-hungry sort of guy, just looking out for his investment.”
When asked about his role in preserving folk music, Lief explained that he didn’t want to sound pompous, but “if you don’t play this music it will die. Folk songs deal with human interaction and the human experience. We’re still dealing with those issues and struggling to get along, so folk songs are still viable and relevant even now. You should use the instruments available to you and play the music any way you want, not erecting any musical borders or boundaries.” Michael Mullen agrees that Tempest is preserving traditional music, but they’re still pushing the envelope and roping in new audiences due to their unique approach. Tempest is his main band, but Sorbye and Mullen need to play acoustically in order to feel balanced. Caliban is a great outlet for that and for playing in venues that normally wouldn’t need a full folk/rock band like Tempest. Hungry to learn traditional fiddle tunes (in 1996 alone Mullen learned over 60 tunes!); Mullen and Sorbye formed the duo (a clever reference to Shakespeare’s play, which many people associate with the band) in 1995. Their 1998 album is perhaps the oddest item in Magna Carta’s catalog: a straight-out acoustic folk album on a progressive rock label. Other members work outside of Tempest also, Mullen with his fiddle lessons, Parnall still working with classical and flamenco and Lazo releasing a solo album entitled The Alley that utilizes some of his Tempest bandmates.
To celebrate their 10th Anniversary, Tempest has gone back into the studio with the latest lineup to record a compilation album. Based on the most requested songs over the years, they are dipping back into the archives, re-recording and updating songs that haven’t been played for quite a while. Some of the earlier albums are out-of-print, so this collection will prove valuable to those that don’t have all their albums and should please fans (they usually know best!). But best of all, with Parnall and Land on board, the songs are getting a fresh look from a different perspective.
So what do the next ten years hold in store for Tempest? No doubt a progression of their unique sound within the framework of traditional music. A bit of musical experimentation with the new lineup and the use of influences that the newest band members have gathered. Perhaps Sorbye puts it best: “We’re really going to try some new ideas and explore new avenues within the same musical policy. We’re going to take what we’re already doing to the next level, still evolving out of the same source with an established foundation, but looking at a whole world of uncharted ideas. There’s such a wealth of source material, you’ll never get stale as long as you keep searching. After ten years I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the band can do. There’s still that sense of discovery and excitement we had in 1988. What the future will hold, I don’t know, but it’s going to be good. But most importantly it’s going to be fun.”
(James Morman-Ashland, KY)
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