Gabriel Sullivan—local musician, singer-songwriter and bandleader—grew up listening to and playing punk rock, but he now spreads himself among such genres as Latin, blues, country, rock, soul and, lately, gypsy and Balkan music.
Just 22, he's also a graphic designer and the booker at downtown's Red Room bar.
"I feel like I'm extremely ADD when it comes to music and to performances. I can never settle down on one genre, or one lineup for a band. It's always changing, but it's nice," said Sullivan said recently.
The sun was setting outside, and raw blues and country blasted from the sound system in the Red Room as the Tucson native and Canyon del Oro High School graduate settled his lanky frame into a red-leather booth.
"I could never choose a favorite music or band that I'm in, because I am simply not capable of just doing one thing, and I am so lucky to have all of these drastically different outlets for myself," he said.
Sullivan will perform, along with his new nine-piece band Taraf de Tucson, next Thursday night, June 3, at Plush. Also on the bill will be local singer-songwriter Andrew Collberg, and the Austin-based group The Preservation, the latest effort by Mario Matteoli, formerly of the Weary Boys.
"I remember growing up, and I had my dad's record collection of Hank Williams and Howlin' Wolf and all these American classics, and later discovering American and British punk rock," he said.
Sullivan started studying music in middle school and played percussion in school bands.
"But sometime around sixth or seventh grade, I got a guitar, a skateboard and a Rancid record, all in what felt like a week. School was just falling by the wayside after that. After that, it was, 'OK, I know what I'm doing for the rest of my life.'"
While studying percussion, classical music and theory in school, Sullivan began playing with the local punk-rock act The American Black Lung, which has released two full-length albums and is about halfway through recording its third, he said.
"A couple of years ago, though, I realized that after playing punk for so long, all of a sudden, I wanted to try to play like Townes Van Zandt, you know, starting writing and performing my own songs. It was about that time I met Brittany, and we started the Fell City Shouts."
Sullivan performs with Brittany Dawn, who also is his life partner, as the Fell City Shouts, playing a raucous interpretation of hillbilly blues and soul, the product of which so far is one excellent EP. Sullivan got so busy with other projects that the Fell City Shouts went on hiatus, but the two recently started playing out again.
Anyone who has heard Sullivan perform will be taken aback by the rough-hewn beauty of his bluesy vocals, which sound mature well beyond his years.
He explains: "I remember being on tour with Black Lung and listening to a bunch of Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton, and it was funny, because I jokingly made a commitment to myself of, 'How many cigarettes can I smoke in the van to make myself sound like this when I get home?'"
Sullivan has no lack of irons in the fire.
He's recorded and released an acclaimed solo album, By the Dirt. He plays guitar with the indie-mambo group Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, and collaborates with Salvador Duran, whom he considers a mentor and a hero. He also partners on several projects with musician-composer Chris Black, whose diverse tastes equal Sullivan's.
The first time Sullivan heard Black play was a revelation, he said.
"I remember standing there and going, 'Holy shit.' I was in awe that somebody like this was in Tucson, and I didn't know him yet. I remember going to watch all of Chris' shows, and every incarnation of his music."
Eventually, they started playing together.
"We ended up doing a couple of short tours together, and there was a lot of quality time in the van when we shared musical influences and made plans to rule the world. We thought we were going to get back to Tucson and start a big Balkan brass band."
First, they began playing as Bajo Turbato, with Sullivan on guitar and bass drum, Black on violin, and a rotating cast of guest musicians.
Although Bajo Turbato remains active, its raw acoustic gypsy sound evolved into Taraf de Tucson, which is a vehicle for Sullivan's songs in a large setting, complete with a four-piece horn section.
There's nothing to the name beyond a nod to traditional Romanian gypsy folk bands, Sullivan said. "Taraf" is simply the Romanian word for "band." It's like a mariachi group calling itself, say, "Mariachi de Tucson."
In addition to Sullivan on guitar and vocals and Black on violin and accordion, Taraf de Tucson includes Jake Sullivan (Gabriel's younger brother) on drums, guitarist Clay Koweek, bassist Sean Rogers, trumpeters Jon Villa and Dante Rosano, and saxophonists Jason Urman and David Clark.
Although Taraf de Tucson only has performed three or four times, already Sullivan is planning a CD-release. "I'm going to throw together four songs from the first show Taraf de Tucson did at the Rialto Theatre. I'm just going to throw together a super-simple, live-demo EP thing that we'll have available at the June 3 show."
Last summer, after Black and Sullivan finished a tour, Black turned over the reins for booking the Red Room to Sullivan. The bar is an annex of the 24-hour Congress Street diner named simply Grill.
At the Red Room, where there is never a cover charge, listeners can hear local musicians in a relaxed setting, and enjoy cozy concerts by out-of-towners who can't get a booking elsewhere.
"Originally, it had the vibe, as far as musicians go, of ... you can play the piano all night, or you can bring your band and rehearse. It was like that for a long time, and now we're slowly starting to make a transformation a bit into something with maybe a more lounge-like vibe, like kind of a private concert feel."