For the Deep Dark Woods, comparisons to the Band are immediate and obvious. Much like the Band, the Deep Dark Woods sound more like a collaboration of Mississippi Delta boys out in the pines than the soundtrack to the Iditarod, the sled dog race in Alaska.
"Part of the reason the Band was so good was that they were listening to everything from Sonny Boy Williamson to Otis Redding to old Roy Acuff records," says lead singer Ryan Boldt. "There's so much great music that, if you're influenced by it, it's only going to come through in your music. That's part of the reason we sound like [the Band] — we listen to the same music that they were. Plus, they're Canadian."
Since their eponymous debut in 2006 and the following year's Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, the Canadian group has built a following among both Americana and indie fans in the U.S., who are drawn to their stripped down, acoustic melodies that belie the depth of Boldt's songwriting, which sounds like Bon Iver-meets-Robbie Robertson.
On the song "Big City Lights" from the band's fourth (and latest) album, The Place I Left Behind, Boldt sings, over and over again, "It's hard to find some peace of mind/With these big city lights all around me." Any additional lyrics would take away from the feeling that the simple statement evokes, sung over and over again with reverb-soaked harmonies from the rest of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based quintet. As the ethereal, repetitive echoes settle in, Boldt drops his audience off under the stars, amidst the deep grass of the western Canada plains. There's a distinctively Southern tinge to their music as well. Boldt soaked up every minute of the group's Southern run last year in support of Robert Earl Keen. "All the music we love comes from the South, whether it's R&B, country, or blues," he says. "I feel like we belong down there."
The Deep Dark Woods are not the first Saskatoon musicians to reach ears south of the border. Joni Mitchell hails from the small city (about the size of Charleston, but very isolated), as do the Sheepdogs, who appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2011 and in an episode of Project Runway. Members of both the Deep Dark Woods and the Sheepdogs have been friends since grade school, attending the same schools, working in a record store together, and continuing to gather at the local tavern for wings and beer when both are in town.
"We both started at the same time, around the summer of 2005, working our asses off, touring constantly, and now it's paying off for both of us," Boldt says.
A week before their first Charleston appearance this Tuesday, the Deep Dark Woods will take the stage at MerleFest, arguably their most significant Southern gig to date. The attentive audiences at that marquee festival will appreciate Boldt's subtle references to forbearers like Guy Clark and his refined melding of history and love in songs like "The Banks of the Leopold Canal."
"I saw a documentary on the Regina Rifles, a regiment from Saskatchewan that went over to Belgium and Holland in World War II, and I thought it would be a good idea for a song," Boldt explains. "It took me awhile to write it, about going off to war and the guy saying goodbye to his wife."
The song made it onto Canada's public radio, earning Boldt a call from a veteran of the regiment living in Calgary. "Somehow he got my number," he recalls. "That was one of the coolest moments ever."
On their website, the Deep Dark Woods acknowledge "an unflinching pursuit of steadiness between decadence and minimalism." It's a perfect description for a group of honest Canadians that might just follow in the footsteps of a similar group from 40 years ago that reshapd the sound of Southern music from a home base far, far away.