SING ALONG: You could call the Builders and the Butchers' music Southern Gothic if four out of five of them weren't from Alaska.
We all know how in 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, the previously all-acoustic Bob Dylan took the stage with an electric guitar, plugged in, enraged fans, and destroyed the folk-music scene forever. Ryan Sollee — frontman of Portland (Oregon) band the Builders and the Butchers, who owe their first home-town following to their heralded unplugged street performances — knows exactly how Dylan must've felt, albeit on a much, much smaller scale.
"When we first plugged in, all of our local fans were super pissed off. Like, 'You guys are gonna suck now!' It was like this huge slap in the face." The singer/guitarist pauses for a moment, then deadpans, "But, you know, it wasn't some giant festival or anything. There were only like 30 people there."
Despite Sollee's high, nasal rasp of a singing voice, the Dylan comparisons pretty much end there: the Builders and the Butchers — who come to the Middle East downstairs this Saturday — make a rustic, intoxicating blend of voodoo-swamp blues, floor-stomping country rock, and tipsy Appalachian folk with (plugged-in) acoustic guitars, banjo, accordion, washboard, and two drummers. Chief songwriter Sollee's subject matter is dark, and darkly humored: gallows poles, the Spanish influenza, self-immolation, coal-mining disasters. It'd be Southern Gothic if four out of five of them weren't from Alaska.
Sollee's own background is in noisy punk rock; one of his earliest groups opened for the Jesus Lizard in Anchorage in the late '90s. Relocating to Portland in the early '00s with yet another punk band, he gravitated toward more-roots-based music. After forming the Builders a few years ago and busking in the streets, Sollee and company graduated to the clubs, and they've since toured or shared stages with such disparate acts as the Decemberists (probably the best fit), Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer, Cake, and Brand New. Still, they've found a way to hang onto the spirit of those back-patio shows where they'd perform on the floor encircled by fans: these days they scatter an array of instruments and toys at the lip of the stage for people to play.
"Back in the day, all of our friends would sing along and grab stuff and play along, and that was the funnest thing. So we've always wanted to incorporate that into the show. And, yeah, it's just playing a tambourine, but it connects people to the music and it breaks down that wall between the audience and the performer."
Although the quintet have but one album — their homonymous 2007 debut — under their belt (a follow-up LP is due in late spring), Sollee is far less concerned with studio output than with keeping the band out on the road as much as possible. This year he'd like to surpass the 100 or so dates they played in 2008. "The Builders and the Butchers is a live band first and foremost. The nature of our music is such that it's to be heard live, and I think our record . . . it's not like we're a pop band or anything. If we do become more popular or whatever, it will be because of the live show and less because of the recorded music.
"I've been in three bands before this band, and done things in a different way, but this is the first time I ever had the feeling that, yeah, this could actually go somewhere."
THE BUILDERS AND THE BUTCHERS + MURDER BY DEATH + FAKE PROBLEMS | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | February 7 at 9 pm | $12 advance/$14 doors | 617.864.EAST or www.mideastclub.com