By Elmer Ploetz
The self-titled new album by The Bear & the Bison may seem like it’s coming out of nowhere for Buffalo audiences, but it’s actually a project that’s been years in the works.
It’s also one of the best country rock/Americana albums to be released in Western New York in recent memory, full of strong songs and singing and pristine production.
The Bear & the Bison is led by Mark Lennon, with help from his wife, Courtney Lennon, and a great group of supporting players (Jim Whitford, Harmony Griffin, Jacob Brockway and Charlie Coughlin are among the names that will be familiar to Buffalo audiences).
Regional audiences aren’t likely to be familiar with the band, though, because live performances have been few. The group was featured as part of the SAM Foundation’s Emerging Artist Showcase series in 2018 in a rare appearance.
In a recent interview, Lennon said that the record had actually been in progress for four years.
“I had finished it last year and was going to release it the spring of last year, or maybe it was two years ago,” he said. “We ended up deciding that I needed to redo a few of the songs. I had even had it mastered and on the platforms to be released, and pulled up. It hurt to do something like that. But in retrospect, I think it was much stronger for doing that.”
It wasn’t Lennon’s first time around a recording project. He released an EP and a CD as a solo artist in Los Angeles. The CD, “Home of the Wheel,” was produced by Marvin Etzioni, a former member of Lone Justice, 1980s cowpunk and roots country stalwarts.
The two Lennons moved back to Courtney’s native Western New York in 2014, though, leaving the LA scene behind (in fact, the band’s name comes from its roots in California with the Bear and Western New York with The Bison).
But they haven’t left music behind. Courtney is best known as the author of “Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver” and for her online magazine Turnstyled, Junkpiled – Roots Music Magazine. And Mark, who makes his living working in cybersecurity, has been working on this album.
The songs are collaboratively written by the two. Some of the songs are traditional country fare (problems with the woman), but with a modern twist (“I don’t wanna read the books she gave me, and I can’t stand her favorite song,” he sings in “Misery.”
Listening to the songs, it might make one ask, “Hey, is everything OK with you and Courtney?”
“I tried to explain to people and it is a lot of it is fiction, you know,” Mark Lennon said. “And they’re based on different things.”
For example, the song “She’s Cold” resulted from his introduction to Western New York winters. As a native southerner who had moved to Southern California, he wasn’t prepared when they moved to the Buffalo area in January and ended up in a place on Lake Ontario.
And Courtney actually was the one who wrote the lyrics on “Misery,” Lennon said.
The album, available both digitally and on vinyl, is a mixture of traditional country and country rock with some direct links back to Gram Parsons.
The production is crisp and the mix sublime. It almost comes as a surprise that much of it was a pandemic-era project with players swapping their parts back and forth remotely. It’s a tribute to the players how perfectly they nailed it while rarely being in the same room.
For example, Whitford’s lap steel on “Misery” and pedal steel guitar on “She’s Cold” captured exactly what Lennon was looking for.
“On ‘Misery,’ he gave it the vibe that we were looking for, that kind of old-school country style,” Lennon said. “And ‘She’s Cold’ just has the weirdest, trippiest vibe going through it as an acoustic type of music could, and a lot of that’s because his pedal work is just great.”
So the music is great, but how do you hear it?
Well, there is the LP, and it’s also on Bandcamp,Youtube, Spotify and Apple Music. There are also music videos (two are on this page; more will be coming soon).
But you may not see much of The Bear & the Bison in the clubs soon.
“When we moved to Buffalo, I kind of felt like I retired (from music),” Lennon said. “I pushed playing music for 25 years in Los Angeles.
“We toyed with the idea (of playing live), but it just hasn’t quite gotten there. I’ve always struggled with really feeling like I have good live performances I really practice up. And a lot of times, it’s like you scramble to pull together a band to play a show. And you kind of half-ass it. It’s hard to get that momentum to have the the quality you want to have in your live shows.”
So for now, the quality may be staying in the grooves.
Full album credits:
The Bear and The Bison features
Dean Vivirito on vocals
Harmony Griffin on guitars
Patrick Jackson on standup bass
Jim Whitford on lap and pedal steel
Jacob Brockway on pedal steel
Charlie Coughlin on fiddle
Michael Russeck on piano
Mark Lennon on lead vocals, guitars, banjo, bass, and drums
Mixed by Dean Nelson
Mastered by Danny Kalb
All songs are written by Mark W. Lennon and Courtney S. Lennon