“The year didn’t happen how we thought it would,” says Andrew Laite. While that’s the case for all of us, it’s particularly true for him and Josh Sandu, who perform as Rube & Rake. They began the year with a new album, “Leaving with Nothing,” intending to tour it for five weeks in the west, then continue through the summer in the east.
The first of a dozen western dates was to be April 23. “It’s hard to feel like you have a purpose,” Laite admits, though there is a glimmer that the long night may be, slowly, coming to an end. “Today we’re rehearsing a couple songs, get ready for tomorrow,” which will be the first of two sold-out, in-person, COVID compliant shows in St. John’s. “We’re getting geared up for that, and just kind of going through what it is now to play live music with COVID.”
The album marks, if not a departure, then at least a significant development from their freshman release, 2017’s “Back and Forth.” There, says Sandu “we really tried to stay to minimalist arrangements.” On this new album there are new ideas, new approaches, and a wealth of new sounds, from dobro to organ. “I remember walking into the studio one day and Andrew had an electric guitar out,” says Sandu. “I remember being so upset and angry because I thought there would be no way that we’d ever have an electric guitar on our record.” But he went with it, and there is. And mellotron too. “We just kind of pulled that thread on the songs and just saw where they went. … just shedding this image that we had of ourselves. Working on the songs and seeing where they lead.”
Where they lead was to a very big, complex, uncertain world. The songs were written and recorded prior to the pandemic, yet there are moments when they seem to reference the kinds experiences we’ve collectively been living through. There characters that populate the songs are making the most of cribbage, and searching for something, and feeling the weight of the passing moments. “May have thought we were headed,” sings Sandu, “For some critical mass/Seems all the while we were waiting for all of/our time to pass.”
The settings are delicate, moving across the musical landscape just as they move across the geographic landscape of the country (“Alberta in the fall to keep me fed/winter in the east to wet my lips … somewhere there’s a place to lay my head.”) and draw on a vocabulary of displacement.
Laite grew up in Newfoundland, Sandu grew up in Prince George, BC, though it’s hard to imagine that the two come from, at least superficially, such different places. Their vocals would be called sibling harmony, were they actually siblings. The arrangements, which are as likely to include come from the string band tradition, and when they perform they navigate around a single microphone, just as a traditional bluegrass band might. “I think we’re influenced by older music,” says Sandu, “but I think we’ve got a foot in the past and a foot in the present. … We’re definitely not trying to reinvent any sort of wheel,” though the goal is what it’s ever been, “connecting with people on that organic level, in that organic way. Giving them something that can help them.”
Like hope. “Come springtime my dormancy will end,” sings Sandu, “And I’ll cast all my boots of heavy lead … There has to be a place to lay my head.” Yes. One with a vaccine.