David Nesseth on Rucksack Willies Drummer Galen Pelley

I’m just as guilty as the next guy when it comes to not giving drummers their due. Maybe it’s because they’re relegated to stage rear, sitting down on the job (comic rimshot), or literally outshone by the glitz of some lead singer’s latest gold-embellished one-piece.

It’s not the case with all genres of music, though. In heavy metal circles, drummers are exalted. Jazz too. Perhaps it’s because these genres have less identifiable frontmen, which means less competition for the spotlight. Or perhaps it’s because the rhythms are often more complex than rock ‘n’ roll or country music. Or it could be that drumming genius is simply fleeting or rare. Put a list of legendary drummers next to one of great singers or guitarists and it will be strikingly shorter every time.

Recently, the short list got even shorter with the April death of Levon Helm, who took The Band to some of Canadian music’s greatest heights. The example of Levon is raised here for yet another reason, which will inevitably be the focus of this writing.

But hold on, maybe I’m cheating here. I mean Levon was a tremendous singer and personality as well, right? That makes it hard to fit him into our image of the drummer relegated to stage rear. He’s not exactly isolated when he’s in a Scorcese-closeup in The Last Waltz, his face scrunched up and belting out the tribulations of Virgil Cain. God, I’ll miss that kind of passion from a drummer!

Wait now…what’s this? Fast forward to The Cameron House 2012, couple of pints into a Monday night. The Rucksack Willies are on stage doing some wonderful down home harmony work. Now, I think, ‘what do we have here?’ as my eyes and ears move from the gorgeous voice and face of singer Angela Hilts to good old stage rear. What I see is a drummer scrunching up his harmony face into a soulful scowl. Pure musical enjoyment that is infectious. At that moment he was drumming, he was doing exactly what he was meant to do, I thought.

That was the first time I saw Galen Pelley.

It was also the first time in a long time that I’d noticed a drummer. I mean, I have my favourites, of course, notably Ben Riley of Thelonius Monk fame, Bill Kreutzman of The Grateful Dead, Vinnie Colaiuta with Zappa, and maybe even The Police’s Stewart Copeland, but I’d never really been blown away by a local drummer at a club.

Not long after that night, I would find myself out at a different Toronto club where musicians held a tribute to the life of the great Levon Helm. Who do you think channeled the spirit of Levon behind the kit that night? You got it. Galen. The 24-year-old dude brought the place alive with the help of his main band, The Treasures, some Rucksacks, and a series of other talented musicians, including the sweet dobro and pedal steel stylings of Rucksacker and Treasurer, Michael Eckert, all of whom were touched by the life and career of the old Midnight Rambler.

The Rucksack Willies, you may know, met as music students at Humber College, where Galen studied jazz drums under Mark Kelso, Paul Delong , Barry Romberg and Ted Warren. He also studied under David James and David Burton in Nova Scotia. He’s been playing since he was 12.

In the footsteps of Levon, Don Henley, Griffin Goldsmith, Ringo and Phil Collins, Galen has taken to singing within the last two years, though he had some earlier voice training. He’s developed a nice rugged tone, and the venture has had some interesting effects on his drumming as well. Let’s let him explain:

“I was getting hired for gigs that required background singing and I didn’t want to turn them down. What’s different about singing and playing simultaneously is that you can’t really focus too much on one or the other. When you study an instrument for many years you get to a point where you don’t have to think as much while you play. I’ve studied voice and drumming, both extensively but mainly independent of one another. The main differences I’ve noticed after singing and playing comfortably now for sometime are the feel, the time, the phrasing, and the energy. First , your feel all of a sudden sits right between ‘straight’ and ‘swing’ just like Stax (Al Jackson Jr. , etc.) and it may seem awkward at first, but once you relax into it you can get the whole room dancing with one crisp backbeat. Second, the time tightens up in all areas of the band. If you’re singing with the lead singer you know right where to put the backbeat so they don’t have to rush or slow down their phrasing. You know the push and pull and slight tempo changes of each section of the song based on the melody you sing as well as your drum part. Third, [it effects] the phrasing and building of dynamics in a song; to be more specific, fills. I play a lot less fills, and in much better places musically knowing I have to stay out of the way of an important lyric or lead guitar line. Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, is the noticeable change in the energy. Especially when singing lead on a song, you’re really ‘driving the bus’. The energy level is so high on stage when the drummer has that much responsibility to the groove, and like I said once you get used to all these things happening at once, and relax into it, the whole room will move and even sing along with you.”

Galen is a natural at being able to hang back at the right times on stage, effortlessly complimenting his fellow musicians. There is not an ounce of tension in his playing. Still, he will rise up at times, shining with a fill that’s just wonky enough to be perfect in its effect. It doesn’t sound technical or forced, but instead dynamic and real. He’s no bloody drum machine just keeping time, he’s part of the song and that song’s life.

Unlike some drummers, he does not detach from the band; he responds to them – looks at them – and they in turn look to him at stage rear in a conversation without words.

Galen’s setup includes a four-piece Gretsch Catalina Maple ( 20′ , 14′ 16′ 10′ ), early eighties TAMA superstar snare with Yamaha vintage wood hoops; a Paiste Giant Beat ride (Bonham) and Dark Hi-hats, Istanbul 18′ crash.

His favourite drummers are Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta and Elvin Jones.

Check out some of Galen’s projects here.
www.therucksackwillies.com (new album available!)

The writing of David Nesseth has appeared in:  Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, The Canadian Press, QMI

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