Breaking barriers

Rosey Robards
Brandon Hafer, Harvey Tumbleson, Ray Rude, Willy Kunkle and Ryan Sollee
Brandon Hafer, Harvey Tumbleson, Ray Rude, Willy Kunkle and Ryan Sollee

Sometimes there are those moments at a concert when audience members feel more connected to the music than they did before they arrived or even after they've left the venue.

When Ryan Sollee and Harvey Tumbleson of The Builders and the Butchers went to a Crooked Fingers concert years ago, they had one of those moments. Led by longtime indie-rock frontman Eric Bachmann, Crooked Fingers came out into the audience to play some songs in the middle of the set.

"So I was thinking, 'What if a band just was this?' " Sollee said. "When you are down in the audience, suddenly the audience is in the band. Everybody is in the band, and it's like this amazing kind of connection that you get that you can't get from a stage."

The Builders and the Butchers formed in Portland, Ore., on Halloween weekend in 2005 as a team of adventurous former Alaskans who wanted to channel this idea and take their music to the streets.

They played at house parties and outside bars and music venues while slowly gathering a fan base. People loved it, and every once in a while a fellow musician who randomly saw the Builders on a street corner would join in.

"Portland is just full of musicians, so there is always someone walking by with a guitar on their way to practice or a show or something," Sollee said as he remembered one performance where someone showed up out of nowhere with an upright bass.

"We're just like, 'Where did you come from with your huge bass?' "

"It evolved kind of slowly and organically from playing on the streets to playing unplugged at very small venues to being on a stage," Sollee said. "It felt like a very natural process."

It wasn't until a large enough crowd gathered that the band was pushed to the stage, but this doesn't stop The Builders and the Butchers from rediscovering its roots now and again.

When the group played its last First Tap show at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub in May, the band connected with the crowd by moving the encore performance to the lobby. Unplugged, the band and audience members gathered around, stomped and clapped while singing Simon and Garfunkel.

"Cecilia, you're breaking my heart / You're shaking my confidence daily / Oh, Cecilia, I'm down on my knees / I'm begging you please to come home."

"Generally, at the end of the show, if we are headlining, we will go down to the audience and play a song and try to get people to sing along," Sollee said.

This technique and the band's appreciation for pre-1950s American blues and gospel music shaped what The Builders and the Butchers are today. Sollee said that old music hits people in the gut. It's not cerebral.

"There's an energy there that needs to be there to make that music translate and to make people want to sing along and stuff," Sollee said.

That energy can be seen in the band's stage presence.

"I think that if you're not feeling the music you are playing, then you should not be playing it," Sollee said.

With his wild eyes and twitchy movements, Sollee feels his dark, gritty lyrics.

In the song, "Devil's Town" he sings, "Keep your eyes to the sky and your ears to the ground / And take me down, take me down / We'll build ourselves a home out of muscle, blood and our broken bones /In the devil's town."

He said he doesn't try to look a certain way while playing; he just does what he needs to do to share the music.

"To sing in this band, I'm singing at a pretty high register the whole time, so it's not like it's easy," Sollee said.

"You get to throw yourself into it, and how you look is how you look," he laughed.

And as in the last show at the Bear Tooth, throwing himself into it sometimes includes throwing himself into the audience.

"And I really like the idea of openness, where anybody is open at any time to just play with us," Sollee said. "The idea of a band is that it kind of brings people together. There's not a wall."

The Builders and the Butchers

When: 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1

Where: Bear Tooth Theatrepub

Tickets: $23, (21 and older)

By Rosey Robards
Daily News correspondent