photos by Rachel Smith; The Haymarket Squares

Smokin’ Punkgrass

Written by Jason P. Woodbury Category: Arts Issue: March 2016
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MUSIC NOTES: Four-fifths of punky bluegrass band The Haymarket Squares are huddled in the green room at the Rebel Lounge in Central Phoenix, getting ready to take the stage on a January night. The room’s packed with the trappings of traditional Americana music – trombones, banjos, guitar cases. “Just move the washboard,” someone says with a chuckle, clearing a seat as beers are passed out and the conversation turns to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born in 1915, the bisexual, guitar-rocking, gospel-singing godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.

“She was a badass,” bassist/vocalist Marc Oxborrow says, to the nodding heads of his bandmates, guitarists John Luther Norris and Mark Allred, and accordion/mandolin player Mark Sunman (fiddle player Jayson James couldn’t make the pre-show hangout). An invocation of Sister Tharpe opens “Heaven,” the atheist anthem which begins Light It Up, the band’s brand-spanking-new album. Listening to Tharpe’s music one Sunday morning, Oxborrow was struck by a question: “When is this salvation gonna actually happen that the Christians have been hoping for?” he says with a laugh.

The Haymarket Squares grew from a trio in 2009 and have released four albums to date. Light It Up is the band’s most polished recording, but also its most diverse, grafting Latin rhythms, classical interludes and fiery country and blues guitars to the band’s “punkgrass” foundation and four-part harmonies. The unique sonic foundation provides a suitably inclusive framework for the band’s lyrical musings on war, the NSA and border strife. “Gritty City,” growled by Sunman with barking intensity, expresses the frustration of being a leftist folk band from Phoenix while acknowledging the city’s hidden charms.

“We might lose our edge if we moved to a nice happy place like California,” Sunman jokes. “When you live in a place like Phoenix, it definitely inspires more material.”

The Haymarket Squares will perform on the main stage March 12 and on the local stage March 13 at McDowell Mountain Music Festival. Visit haymarketsquares.com.