OF THE URBAN HILLBILLY QUARTET
Erik Brandt has been the ringleader of the award-winning eclectic Twin Cities-based Urban Hillbilly Quartet since 1995. By night, he plays music. By day, he teaches English and Journalism at Harding High School in St. Paul. He’s played in venues all over the USA, Canada, Australia, and on various street corners throughout Europe. He’s also taught high school Shakespeare, rudimentary grammar, haikus and standardized test prep.
On stage, Erik performs mainly original material drawn from the Americana vein. Most of his original tunes can be found on the seven albums he’s recorded with the UHQ: Living in the City, St. Paul Town, Beautiful Lazy, Lanky but Macho, Hot and Now, Amelia’s Boot and The A-List…and now Green Eyed Alone, his first solo album. When choosing covers, he pulls liberally from the catalogs of Bob Dylan, Big Bill Broonzy, Johnny Cash, and other Americana heroes. As a multi-instrumentalist, Erik switches between acoustic guitar, wurlitzer and piano-accordion during performances.
His music has been influenced by and compared to: Americana powerhouses The Jayhawks, Gillian Welch, and Uncle Tupelo; Georgia’s Vigilantes of Love; Britain’s The Waterboys; Australia’s Paul Kelly; Canada’s Bruce Cockburn; and folk/jazz stars David Grisman, Paris Combo and Tin Hat Trio.
Though Erik mostly performs solo, he is often joined by guests from UHQ and other bands on stage. The combination of his different instruments, songwriting talent and musical guests makes his live performances dynamic and unique.
When Urban Hillbilly Quartet leader Erik Brandt made a temporary move to Budapest, Hungary in 2007, the voracious musician did not bring so much as a backpacker guitar on the journey. Seeking to get away from the familiar, Erik’s goal was “to find my perspective.” When he returned to the Twin Cities one year later, Brandt brought with him a new Czech-made guitar, long distance friendships with some of Hungary’s top acoustic musicians.
Sometimes is a collection of 10 Erik Brandt originals. It features Brandt’s empathetic vocals and acoustic guitar in a “folky-er” setting than on his country-rock-tinged UHQ releases and his eclectic 2006 solo debut, Green Eyed Alone. Brandt struck up a friendship with standout Hungarian musician Miklós Szula, a multi-instrumentalist who co-produced the CD with Brandt and who performs throughout. Szula recruited a handful of top players from Hungary’s folk and bluegrass scenes to add distinct touches to Sometimes. While the release was recorded in Budapest with a cast of Hungarian musicians, American images pervade. (“Rambling,” for example, is Brandt’s take on a classic folk theme, and “Madison” pays homage to the Wisconsin city that lingered, inexplicably, in Brandt’s consciousness.) The Hungarian influence is there as well, however, including street noises heard on the title track and the tales of Brandt’s immigrant great-grandfather on “The Ballad of János Sinkó.”
Erik Brandt’s year in Hungary was part of a Fulbright Teachers Exchange (he teaches high school students in addition to being a musician). The opportunity came at a welcome time for Erik and his family, as he was finding that his public school job and his rounds on the Midwest music circuit were becoming stifling. Although he intended to just put aside music for a while, Erik’s 3-year old daughter spotted a music shop on the floor level of their Budapest apartment building. Erik couldn’t resist picking up a guitar, and he was soon studying under Szula to freshen up his approach to the instrument. Maybe it was the effect of being in a new environment, with no knowledge of the language and finding simple trips to the grocery store to be perplexing, and maybe it was the inspiration of a talented musical mentor in Szula; probably many things caused new songs to start coming fast for Erik. He even went back to his pouch of unfinished songs that he “simply couldn’t finish in the USA,” and brought a few back to life. Miklós Szula and the musicians he assembled for the recording were, according to Brandt, “players of an incredibly high level, and I felt very fortunate that they took an interest in the project, in part, because they want to work with Americans.” The resulting CD, Sometimes, presents an often personal and reflective side of Brandt.
With the Urban Hillbilly Quartet and on his own, Erik Brandt has performed live at Toronto’s North By Northeast Festival, venues from Oakland, CA to NYC, and locales stretching from pubs in Britain to clubs in Australia. In Minnesota he has appeared at premier venues and events like the Big Wu Family Reunion. The UHQ has released 8 CDs, picking up a MN Music Award (and several nominations) and glowing reviews along the way. Erik’s 2006 solo CD Green Eyed Alone drew praise from critics and fans. The Star Tribune said that the solo debut “oozes heart.” The Pioneer Press called it a “warm and engaging disc” and Pulse of the Twin Cities called it “a great CD accessible to everyone.”