It's a week after St. Patrick's Day, and singer-songwriter Chris Allen appears to have fully recovered from his holiday gig with his usually drunk Pogues cover band, Boys From the County Hell. On St. Patrick's Day — their busiest and craziest gig of the year — the group performed for more than 15 hours, starting at 9 in the morning.
"It helps to have some beers, when you're in that band," laughs Allen, 37. "They're the only band I've been in that really requires alcohol."
Allen is accustomed to hellish schedules. For the past dozen years, he's been one of Cleveland's best and most proficient songwriters. He's played bluegrass with the Lonesome Stars. He recorded a punk album with the Bedroom Legends. He's served as a backing musician for everyone from Akron roots-rocker Tim Easton to Nashville-bound Anne E. DeChant, for whom Allen appeared as a special guest at her sold-out farewell show last month. He also fronted the hugely popular local band Rosavelt for eight years. And finally, a couple of years back, Allen launched a solo career.
His second album, Things Unbroken, came out in February in old-school CD form. It hit digital services — including iTunes — last week. Whatever way you listen to it, it's a solid collection of Springsteenian rock songs about fate ("One Day Our Bad Luck Is Going to Save Us"), relationships ("Happily in Love"), and memories (the title tune). "The album's about holding on to and celebrating things I really cherish," says Allen, who looks the part of a roots-rocker, with his short, ruffled hair, facial stubble, and sideburns that dip below the earlobes. "It's about the little things I care about."
Allen grew up listening to some usual suspects (like Bob Dylan) and some unusual ones (like Neil Diamond). Then, in the mid-'80s, like many guys who came of age during "college rock"'s formative years, he immersed himself in records by R.E.M., the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü. His first band covered the Clash in a battle-of-the-bands; it also performed an Allen original about a waiting room.
In 1996, Allen formed Rosavelt with friends from Cleveland and Cincinnati. The group — which played a rootsy mix of twang, folk, and heartland rock — was favorably compared to such alt-country giants as Son Volt, Whiskeytown, and Wilco. But Allen and his bandmates weren't too keen on the label. "That helped us for about five minutes," he laughs. "All those bands are great, but they weren't selling tons of records. We'd do these [out-of-town] showcases, and they'd tell us, 'Whiskeytown sold only 100,000 copies. We expect you to do less than that.'"
Rosavelt released three albums — 1997's Carp & Bones, 1999's Transistor Blues, and 2004's The Story of Gasoline — in the eight years it was together. In 2004, Allen started fearing — and hearing — the worst from the rest of the group. The bass player quit first. "It was one of those situations where we knew that without any [record-company] support, we were just going to keep losing money on the road," recalls Allen, who remains friendly with all of his old bandmates. "It just takes its toll on people. I knew it wasn't going to be a band. It was going to be Chris Allen and rotating characters. I figured I might as well call it what it is."
So two years ago, Allen recorded his solo debut, Goodbye Girl and the Big Apple Circus, with producer Don Dixon, the South Carolina native who co-produced R.E.M.'s first two albums and now lives near Canton. Dixon — who produced Rosavelt's final album after-hours at the Beachland Ballroom — applied a tough, coarse coating to Goodbye Girl. His work on Things Unbroken is even grittier.
From the gutsy guitar riffs to the crash-bucket drums — supplied by Will Rigby, who was a member of pioneering alt-rockers dB's and played with Steve Earle — Things Unbroken's 11 songs sound a lot like Exile on Main St.-period Rolling Stones and, more to the point, the Replacements. "As I've gotten older, I've been concentrating more on the rock side," says Allen. "Which is weird, because you'd think I'd mellow out."
Allen says the new album — which cost $10,000 to record — reflects a grown-up artist coming to terms with his confidence and limitations. Not that he was ever a boozing fuckup like the Replacements' Paul Westerberg. Allen is passionate about his music, but he's just as passionate about other people's music. He's a lifelong fan — during our get-together at a Tremont coffee shop, we discuss Bruce Springsteen, Mission of Burma, the Hold Steady, and Tom Waits, among many others — and it's clearly reflected in his own songs.
Things Unbroken sounds like a classic rock record. Its power-chord riffs and gruff singing could've come from 1975, 1985, or 2008. "I've always liked rock and roll with good songwriting," says Allen. "Lyrics always come first, and they have to have some sort of point or story."
Inspiration comes quick and often, he says. There are a lot of songs in the can that didn't make it on the new album. Allen regrets losing some of them — "I wrote this great rock epic called 'Who Is Mary Ann,' but we couldn't get it to work" — while others probably could use some tweaking before they're released. "I have all these leftover tracks," he says. "I keep all the lyric sheets, and if the right situation comes up, they'll end up on a record."
Allen spent two weeks in February playing record-release parties in Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City (he has quite a following there), and, of course, Cleveland. But he's most excited about Things Unbroken's digital distribution. For an old-school album fan, it's a leap of faith that his like-minded fans will follow.
"The songs are going out to internet radio stations and blogs," he says. "I'm hoping people will like something and then buy the whole record. It's interesting, because now I have the same distribution as Springsteen and everyone else. It's just a matter of people finding it."