If you ask a new fan their impression of Hiway Freeker, you may get any number of responses. Some might describe them as a soul band, others as a dance band, or you may hear ‘blistering rockers’ or ‘pop country’. Others may rant about co-founder and guitar player Paul Malin, who at 6’7’ towers over the rest of the band, or about vocalist Serena Southam’s voice; ‘What a voice!’ and ‘she’s really hot,’ you’ll commonly hear. The truth is that the Freeker is a band with a high degree of eclecticism. They do so many different kids of things well, and combine them so effortlessly on stage, that their foundation as a growing band to watch seems well assured.
Hiway Freeker got its start in Edmonton when university students Malin and bass player Mike Felber jammed together in an early incarnation of the Freeker called Highway 2, which also included current songwriter Jared Shore on keyboards. Malin then met Vancouver singer Serena Southam, and they became friends and musical collaborators, eventually marrying.
The couple moved to New York City, where Southam trained her voice formally in musical theatre at the Circle In The Square. Felber soon joined them and they began to play out in the New York area with local musicians, developing a small but loyal following. However the group, all Canadian citizens, had basic legal and financial obstacles that kept them from flourishing in New York. ‘Our visas ran out,’ laughs Malin. Unable to work legally to support themselves as they developed, they were forced to hop back across the border a year ago, this time to Montreal, where they currently reside. Their lineup now includes Winnipeg natives Mark Hoeppner on keyboards and Shaun Bronstein on drums. They perform an evolving repertoire of originals and covers.
There are theories about Canadians being able to observe others uniquely by living so close to the US, while simultaneously being on the outside looking in. Hence the success, so the story goes, of such downstage observers as Mike Myers, Eugene Levy, and Jim Carrey. This ability to observe and mimic may have something to do with the Freeker’s talent in performing both straight send ups as well as interpretative tributes of other people’s music. Under the umbrella of Hiway Freeker Presents, they also play out as two other bands. The Bob Dylan Project features the songs of Zimmy and only Zimmy, ‘but we do them as a jamband, or with a reggae touch,’ says Malin. The second project is the more camp in concept, if serious in execution. This second project is called ‘Estrada’ [named after Erik of CHiPS fame] and performs covers of music recorded between the years 1977 and 1982: a cover of The Talking Heads ‘Life During Wartime’ finds bass player Felber locking his knees and jogging in place a la Tina Weymouth.
‘Talking Heads, but also Stevie Winwood, Boz Scaggs, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie etc.,’ says Malin. Apparently, a cover of Hall and Oates ‘I Can’t Go For That’ may also be in the works for Estrada. Why have two other bands? ‘I had been in a band for five years, and I didn’t want to be in ‘one band’ anymore, so I started the concept of Hiway Freeker Presents, which people would remember, you know, as the mothership — but also have these two other bands…We wear different clothes, and we have different names’. Having three bands ‘really helped in New York, when we weren’t touring, and had to book as many shows as possible locally,’ adds Southam.
Playing as Hiway Freeker they combine these covers with originals written mostly by Jared Shore, an occupational therapist living in Calgary who formed part of the original band. ‘I realized that this guy had been writing like mad, and so we decided to use his material,’ says Malin. Once they receive Shore’s work the band arranges the music collaboratively before performing live. ‘[Shore] sends pre-recorded music and lead sheets. Sometimes we use his arrangements, but not always,’ says Southam. ‘We’ll bring in a song, and we’ll talk about it, and argue, voice out opinions,’ says Felber. ‘Someone might think it could use an enhancement here or a change there…but we definitely do it as a group.’
Southam’s voice is compelling. She has perfect pitch, a strong clear voice, and a generous range. At her most powerful she invokes a less gritty Janis Joplin, particularly in her interpretation of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tough Mama.’ On sweeter show tunes such as ‘Downtown Lights’ her clarity and subtlety of phrasing is more evocative of Patsy Cline and Petula Clark. Trained in Broadway singing, she confesses to Bernadette Peters and Liza Minneli as influences. Her feminine presence invests the songs with a sophistication that sets the group apart from the homogeneity of the jam boybands, bringing a lighter urban touch that invokes BritPop here, and country rock there. The band’s debut album, Shark, features the mellow country sensibility of Shore’s songwriting, and particularly showcases Southam. However during the live sets, Southam will often leave the stage during the jam portions of the songs, leaving the boy-Freekers to tear it up thickly, which they do.
In case it isn’t clear on the album, The Freekers rock and rock hard. ‘Perjordt’, an instrumental written by bass player Mark Felber, has a rollicking jazzy jam reminiscent of MMW; Hoeppner makes full use of his organ to mesh with Felber’s driving bass and Malin’s feedback-heavy guitar. On ‘Downtown Lights’ a mellow jam begins with a flute-like guitar synth and Jerry-like bounce that builds gradually and powerfully. The Freeker has a terrific ability to jam in a range of idioms, pulling off a high-energy infectious vocal romp on songs like ‘Mighty High’, and a rollicking bluegrass jam on Shore’s ‘Get On Little Partner Get On’.
On ‘Find The Hole Part II’, Malin and Hoeppner trade guitar and key solos back and forth with lightning-fast changes, backed by Bronstein’s solid drumming. These dueling solos re-appear on ‘Madison Ave’. Bassist Felber picks up lead vocals on Dylan’s ‘Deadman Deadman’. On ‘Slow Train Coming’, Felber switches up his bass lines between measures, creating the sense of a meandering bass. He improvises ‘more than I would like; I play too many notes,’ he says. But it clearly pays off to the listener during the live jam segments, as all three of the musicians are listening to each other and modifying their melodic direction in real time. Drummer Bronstein combines a solid strong beat with a light and swift ability to meet changes throughout. On ‘Opening Day’, Hoeppner surprises us with honky-tonk piano. ‘Manhattan Shuffle’ contains elements of Robert Palmer and Santana. Separate influences constantly emerge through Malin’s guitar, cycling through like colorful socks in the dryer.
The band’s eclectic range is a definite asset in designing sets for live shows. While Shore’s downtempo ballads give the album a mellow, country pop feel, the live shows keep the audience’s attention through variation with bluesy covers and powerful jams, which are then interspersed with Southam’s lyrical singing. The varied musical tastes of the musicians promise even more diversity of sound adding to the mix: Hoeppner, the band’s keyboardist, is currently adding his first composition, a trance-inspired piece called Middlebury.
Switching up the sound for variety is important, says Southam. ‘We look at our repertoire of 60 or 70 songs, and say, ‘okay, what mid-tempo songs do we have?’ I like people to be able to rock out hard at our shows and then be able to cleanse the palate with really sexy, soulful slow songs.’
Hiway Freeker’s debut album, Shark, is available at their website and at shows. They play May 9 in Burlington at Red Square, May 10 at the Smile Festival in Middlebury, VT, and at the Come Together Festival in Ontario May 24 weekend. A cross-Canada tour starts in
Montreal on July 3 and is likely to include 17 or 18 shows before finishing up in Winnipeg on July 23. A DVD is also in the works and the band plans on going back into the studio to record this August.