Friday night. 8 p.m. Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The Opera House. A pretty great thing is going down. The Bitter Liberals will take the stage to perform (for the last time in 2015) and you really ought to consider checking it out. We recently caught up with Clark Hansbarger of the band to talk about the group’s great name, how they came to be, how great the sound is at the Opera House, and, of course, what we can expect from their show tomorrow night.
Take us back to the beginning. How did The Bitter Liberals start? Who approached whom? How did it get off the ground? How long have you since been together?
We’ve been a band almost four years, though it’s been brewing for decades now. Playing together is so natural, it feels almost inevitable, like all of our paths led to The Bitter Liberals. About seventeen years ago, after years on the road, Allen walked away from playing professionally. He was done. I used to see him around Berryville, tell him what a fan I was, and we’d talk about doing some songwriting together, though we never did. Then, about four years ago, Gary pulled him out of retirement. He had Allen and I over to jam at his house on the Shenandoah. Gary and Allen had recently met, so the three of us were pretty much strangers musically, but we clicked right away. After a few sessions, Allen called Mike, his childhood friend and bandmate from Genghis Angus, and Mike rolled right in. It was all pretty simple and organic. I’m kind of amazed at how easily we mixed — and how easily we still do. We’ve all been in bands that sometimes felt like work. Maybe it’s because because we’re older now, and that we share the same sensibilities about music. Our first CD was titled “13,” after the song Allen wrote about his manager’s death and the 13 years it took to find his way back to what he loves, what we all love. We all have full lives outside of the music, but this band has been a chance to fall in love again with playing.
What does each member of The Bitter Liberals bring to the band? I read on your website that Allen Kitselman, for instance, toured extensively and had a song pop up on “The Real World.” How did you land on this lineup and what makes The Bitter Liberals, The Bitter Liberals?
We added up the years we’ve each been playing one time, and it totaled around 175. That’s a lot of hours, a lot of songs. So this band comes relatively late in our musical lives — hell, in our non-musical lives. Though we like to believe we’re still rocking, the reality is that this is a young man or woman’s game. To be successful, you’ve got to exhaust yourself, tour like crazy and play nightly. Well, we’ve all done some of that — Allen and Mike especially — but I don’t think any of us are eager to do that again. So, instead, now we perform out about once a month, and always in a theater. We keep each other honest, bring our best to the table each time. We respect, even admire each other, and we have nothing to lose. Everything is upside. It certainly frees up the creativity. When we write, we’re not thinking of creating hits or being famous, but of making each song the best it can be. It’s pretty damn fun, and our audiences have rewarded us by coming back for more time and again. Each of us brings deep experience to the band. Allen and Mike were founding members of Genghis Angus, which made a successful run of it — four albums, lots of radio play and songs on MTV. The band worked with John Mellencamp’s producer, Mike Wanchic, and toured nationally for several years, performing on Mountain Stage and E-Town. Mike still plays regularly in Loudoun, including a weekly soul and funk gig with Bryan Fox and Friends. I played and recorded for years in D.C. and Northern Virginia with some very good bar bands. Gary was a child prodigy on the violin, performing in Carnegie Hall twice before he was a teen. And he, too, played and recorded for years with fine bands in the area. And we have fulfilling lives outside music — families and careers. I’m a retired teacher and writer. Gary is a world expert on computer security. Mike is the smokehouse chef extraordinaire at Purcellville’s Monks BBQ, and Allen is a respected architect. So, again, we do the music for love.
Also, we’ve noted on Frederick Playlist before that we love the name, The Bitter Liberals. How did you come up with that name and what does it mean?
It’s the name of a cocktail, actually — this old speakeasy concoction Gary makes called a Liberal. You can find the recipe on our website, thebitterliberals.com. It’s a bourbon drink using some rare bitters. Of course, most people think the name is political, which is fine too, I suppose … as long as folks have a sense of humor about it!
Now, to The Opera House. What’s your impression of the place as a venue? What’s your impression of Shepherdstown as a whole?
We love the Opera House for the resonance in that cool old hall. Because of the music we play, we love a quiet room, and though the place can get raucous with some bands, for us, it becomes a true concert hall — except for the couches up front, which are pretty strange and very relaxing-looking. Steve Cifala, the Opera House sound man, is one of our favorites. First time we played there, he dialed us right in, understood what we were about and made the sound just perfect — crystal clear on stage and even better out front, each instrument and voice distinct and balanced. This is super important to us, and Steve got it right. The audience in Shepherdstown is pretty sophisticated. They appreciate original music and listen well. This is a music town. That they filled the house last time when there was so much other good music nearby that night was an honor. Oh yeah, (the town has) great restaurants, too — though we didn’t go out that night because the Opera House crew served us up an excellent gumbo in the green room before the show.
What are some of your favorite memories of the band to date? Are there any moments that stand out as particularly special in your group’s history?
We opened for James McMurtry the first time we performed, and then for David Olney the second time, so we had these great audiences right away, and they seemed to love us. Since then, we’ve had lots of memorable shows in fine venues like The American Theater in Hampton and The Tin Pan in Richmond. If the sound system is good and the audience relaxed, we always have fun. Sometimes my daughter, Kara Hansbarger, joins us on stage for a song. She’s tremendous, and she and John R. Miller opened for us last time at the Opera House, so that was pretty memorable for me.
Who are some of your influences and why?
That’s kind of an impossible question to answer. Each of us has an eclectic yet distinct taste in music, and each of us came from different musical beginnings. Gary was classically trained. Mike learned to sing in the church as a kid. Allen and I are both self-taught guitarists who wrote songs from early on. We all played electric rock for years, but now we do more acoustic music. We can improvise and jam, but prefer now to create a tighter, practiced set. It’s a smorgasbord that’s been working well so far.
Where are some of your favorite places to play and why?
Our songs have a dynamic sound range. There are soaring, elegiac passages where we’re all playing loudly, and then we drop down to a whispery voice or quiet, lovely violin line. These are not bar songs. Lots of subtlety we want the audience to enjoy. Because of this, we play only “sit down and listen” venues. So, anywhere that the audience sits down and listens is our favorite place to play. We’ve enjoyed some tremendous, intimate house concerts with 50 people in the room, and had the same fun in sold out, packed-to-the-rafters shows at the Barns of Rosehill. And, of course, we love the Opera House.
Are there any names of other local acts that we should be aware of that you guys are really into?
I’m always amazed at the talent in the tri-state area. It’s pretty remarkable — so many gifted musicians. And they keep getting younger. We’ve shared the stage with some fine local acts. Andy Hawk and The Train Wreck Endings from Leesburg are very fun. Andy’s a tremendous songwriter. Silver Line Station just opened for us at the Tally Ho Theater and they had a fine act — lots of energy and a tight sound. And Shepherdstown has so many fine musicians. John R. Miller is a tremendous bass player and songwriter, and, of course, Chelsea McBee. If anyone’s going places, that talented gal is.
What is in your CD player (or on your playlist, for that matter) right now?
I’m little afraid to answer that since I’m speaking for all of us. The other guys are worldly listeners, have refined musical tastes. They talk about new bands I’ve never heard of, and I just nod and act like I’ve heard of them. Truth is, my CD player has some some old Dead tracks, a John Hiatt (record), and a good book on tape.
And finally, what can we expect from your show at The Opera House?
A memorable evening filled with beautiful, intricate, ironic, energetic, thoughtful music. And fun. We are pretty relaxed on stage; folks say we look like we enjoy ourselves, which we do. Though we see lots of youth at our shows, I sometimes think we have signs that say “For Mature Audiences Only” stuck on our backs. We seem to fill the venues with the same folks who go to see Richard Thompson or Gillian Welch, people who want to hear every note and nuance, every subtle moment of the songs. Our audiences expect a concert. Three of us are songwriters, so we do almost all originals. And because we all sing, we are definitely a vocal band, though the instrumentation and arrangements are complex and interesting, too. And though it might be self-indulgent, we like to tell the stories behind the songs, so there will be some talking — and some laughs. One thing we hear a lot is that folks don’t know who to compare us to. I take this as a compliment. We are us. Period. The Bitter Liberals.