Only 40 percent of one of Tucson's hottest young musical acts actually resides in the Old Pueblo.
With three members living in the Phoenix area, and two in Tucson, the acoustic-bluegrass band Run Boy Run faces obvious logistical challenges whenever the members play, rehearse or record. But it's worth it, they say.
"It's a challenge making sure we all get together, that's for sure. I go back and forth to Tucson a lot," says fiddler Matt Rolland, who lives in the Phoenix area.
"But it's also good, in a way. I think the distance makes us really take advantage of the time we do have together, and we appreciate more the time when we are practicing and performing. Maybe that's what helps us understand this is worthwhile."
Mandolin-player Jen Sandoval, who lives in Tucson, expects to be driving back and forth to Phoenix each weekend in November. "We've set aside the whole month of November to record our new full-length album," she says. The recording is expected to be released in early 2013.
So far, Run Boy Run has released a five-song EP and a two-song digital single—both available on Bandcamp.
The group's sound revolves around the luminous three-part harmonies of Sandoval; her fiddle- and guitar-playing sister, Bekah Sandoval; and cellist Grace Rolland. The band's XY chromosomes are represented by upright-bassist Jesse Allen and Matt Rolland (Grace's brother), a two-time Arizona state fiddle contest winner.
All in their 20s, the members of Run Boy Run still consider themselves a Tucson band, because they began playing together here in 2009, when the five were students at the University of Arizona. "This is where we got our start, playing open-mics and wherever we could three years ago," Jen Sandoval says.
Four of the players in Run Boy Run have since moved on to post-college careers, while Jen Sandoval is beginning her final semester and anticipates graduating in December.
Most of them grew up in musical families. The Sandovals grew up in Payson; their grandfather is bluegrass-festival-promoter Ben Sandoval. The Rollands were born in Mesa; their father, fiddler Pete Rolland, is from Tucson and played in the legendary bluegrass group Summerdog.
The Rollands and Sandovals were brought up on the music of Bill Monroe, the Carter family and Alison Krauss. And Run Boy Run continues to play a balance of original compositions, cover songs and traditional tunes attributed to the public domain, Matt Rolland says.
He acknowledges that Run Boy Run—like anyone who plays traditional or old-time music—is familiar with morbid topics and emotionally wrenching subject matter.
"We probably do too many murder ballads, but we do really like the dark and melancholy; there's something that meshes well with the swelling of the stringed instruments," Rolland says. "We've had some late-night discussions about this, and I think there's so much darkness in old-time music because it's part of an emotional catharsis that helps you overcome adversity in life."
Although the band frequents folk and bluegrass festivals in the region, Run Boy Run doesn't get to perform in Tucson as often as its members would like. A performance at the Tucson Folk Festival in May, however, brought the group considerable attention.
This fall will see the group play a few gigs in its hometown. There's a Friday, Sept. 7, gig at Plush with the Silver Thread Trio, as well as Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman. And the band will perform Oct. 20 as part of a new music series at Harlow Gardens nursery.
But first, Run Boy Run will join numerous other local acts on stage this Saturday, Aug. 25, at the Rialto Theatre. The band will be part of the KXCI Celebrates 1972 concert, a fundraiser for community radio station KXCI FM 91.3. The concept calls for each local artist to play a brief set, covering songs from a classic album released exactly 40 years ago.
This is the fourth year the station has mounted such a show, and it's become a much-anticipated tradition. The first was a 2009 tribute to 1969's Woodstock festival, and editions in the years since feted the music of 1970 and 1971. (Full disclosure: I am a volunteer DJ at the station.)
The other Tucson artists on the bill include Logan Greene Electric (covering Big Star's #1 Record), Kevin and Tanishia Hamilton (Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway), Crosscut Saw (the Allman Brothers Band's Eat a Peach), Mik Garrison (Stevie Wonder's Talking Book), Chris Holiman and the Downtown Saints (Neil Young's Harvest), Boreas (Randy Newman's Sail Away) and Roll Acosta (Al Green's Let's Stay Together).
Run Boy Run will play a handful of tunes from the acclaimed Rock of Ages by The Band, the pioneering act that was among the first and most-significant groups to infuse rock 'n' roll with elements of Americana and roots music.
Because Rock of Ages is a double-live album, Run Boy Run's choice allows it to play a mixture of songs from across the Band's influential catalog. They'll do "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Get Up Jake," "This Wheel's on Fire" and "Up on Cripple Creek."
"Last weekend, we had a pretty intense rehearsal on those songs, and I like the sound we have come up with for them," Jen Sandoval says. "I am just excited, because I know that so many people love these songs."
She's also excited to sing lead on the Band's "Don't Do It."
"I get to do a little bit of a bluesy vocal on that," she says. "We three girls like to spread out the vocal duties so each of us gets the chance to show off."
The guys in the band don't usually sing, but Sandoval is hoping they'll be coerced into chiming in during "The Weight."