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Emerging from the roots rock movement of the 1980s, the BoDeans scored a hit with 1993's "Closer to Free" and maintained their heartland sensibilities for decades to come. The push and pull between Sam Llanas' gritty tenor and acoustic guitar and Kurt Neumann's smoother, bolder voice and punchy electric leads dominated their 1986 debut album, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams. While a greater pop sensibility informed 1989's Home and 1993's Go Slow Down, the passionate core of their songs remained secure. In the 2000s, the BoDeans stepped away from major labels and continued at their own pace, releasing discs including 2010's Mr. Sad Clown. Following Llanas' departure, the band endured, with 2015's I Can't Stop and 2022's 4 the Last Time offering mature variations on their time-honored themes. The BoDeans were formed in Waukesha, Wisconsin, by high school friends Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann. The two met in 1977, and after discovering that they shared an interest in music, they began writing songs together. Initially, Neumann played drums and Llanas was still mastering the guitar, but their sound started taking shape when Neumann picked up the electric guitar, and in 1980 they started a band, adopting the name Da BoDeans. After a few years of scuffling, they landed gigs in Milwaukee, using a revolving-door assortment of bassists and drummers until Guy Hoffman became their permanent drummer in 1984 and Bob Griffin signed on to play bass in 1985. By this time, Da BoDeans had already contributed tracks to local sampler albums, and as their popularity in Wisconsin spread, record companies were courting them. They signed with the noted punk/alternative label Slash Records (which persuaded them to streamline their name to BoDeans), and went into the studio with producer T-Bone Burnett to cut their debut LP. 1986's Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams was met with positive reviews and respectable sales, and the BoDeans were named the Best New American Band of the year in a Rolling Stone reader's poll. After sessions with Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers failed to click, the band teamed with Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison to produce their sophomore effort, 1987's Outside Looking In, which had a glossier sound than the first. They toured extensively in support of the release, including a number of dates on U2's Joshua Tree tour. In addition, Llanas and Neumann were invited to contribute backing vocals to Robbie Robertson's debut solo album, also released in 1987. In 1988, the BoDeans started work on their third album, with Jim Scott producing. Guy Hoffman had left the group, and Kenny Aronoff, then a member of John Mellencamp's road band, was brought in to play on the sessions; the group also recruited a keyboard player, Michael Ramos. Recorded in a former shoe factory where the band rehearsed, 1989's Home showed they had picked up some guitar tricks from touring with U2, and the disc cracked the Top 100 of the national album charts. David Z, a former member of Prince's band, produced 1991's Black and White, which featured a more pop-centered sound, with a greater reliance on electronic keyboards. The album wasn't the breakthrough the BoDeans were hoping for, and they went back to a more organic approach for 1993's Go Slow Down, which the band produced themselves with some help from T-Bone Burnett. Neumann took over most of the instrumental work on the album, and it initially didn't connect outside of their fan base, but 11 months after Go Slow Down was released, the opening track, "Closer to Free," became the theme song to a new TV series, Party of Five. As the show became a hit, the song took on a new life, and in 1996, it became a belated hit, peaking at number 16 on the U.S. singles charts, and going all the way to number one in Canada. By the time "Closer to Free" took off, the BoDeans had already issued a live album, 1995's Joe Dirt Car, and were working on their next studio effort. 1996's Blend was produced by the group in tandem with Greg Goldman, and featured a guest appearance from Danny Federici of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band. Legal battles with their manager and some much-needed time off kept the BoDeans out of the recording studio for the next several years. In 2004, they struck a new record deal with Zoe, an imprint of Rounder Records, and issued their seventh studio album, the upbeat Resolution. A New Year's Eve show in their adopted hometown of Milwaukee was the source of their second live album, 2005's Homebrewed: Live from the Pabst, which introduced keyboard player Bukka Allen, replacing Michael Ramos. Llanas and Neumann formed their own He & He label to issue their next studio project, 2008's Still, which found them working once again with T-Bone Burnett. It also marked another personnel change, with Eric Holden taking over on bass from Bob Griffin. He & He partnered with 429 Records to release the band's next two studio efforts, 2010's Mr. Sad Clown and 2011's Indigo Dreams. Indigo Dreams proved to be the last BoDeans album with Sam Llanas; he left the group a month after the record arrived, citing differences of opinion with his bandmates. The group moved on without him, with guitar tech Jake Owen standing in for Llanas on-stage. The BoDeans' 11th studio album, American Made, arrived the following year on the band's own Free & Alive label, and was the first with Neumann as sole leader. The group toured extensively in support of the release, and in 2014 they began work on their next studio project. Released in 2015, I Can't Stop featured a new BoDeans lineup, with Neumann, Holden, and Aronoff flanked by guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Sam Hawksley. In June 2016, the BoDeans issued the single "My Hometown," with the release benefiting the Milwaukee County Historical Society. The track was a preview of the group's next album; titled Thirteen, the 11-song set was released in April 2017. The band's touring and recording commitments were wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, and Neumann responded by writing and recording new songs in his home studio. The quarantine sessions became an album, and 2020 Vision was issued by the year's end. Working alone agreed with Neumann, and 2022's 4 the Last Time featured ten songs he wrote and produced, while playing all the instruments himself.
© Mark Deming /TiVo
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