Photo by Kristy Walker

Rain Man

Howlin’ Rain brings East Bay Southern rock to Eugene

Ethan Miller has a little black book, but it’s not what you think.

Instead, it’s a black Moleskine notebook the singer and guitarist jots notes in whenever his band Howlin’ Rain plays a new town, recording places like coffee shops, record shops, book stores and amazing breakfast spots. The kind of places that his Oakland, California-based band may want to hit up should they pass through again — or, really, anywhere that’s “got some flavor of the town,” Miller says. 

Most of all, the black book helps Howlin’ Rain stay away from the bar as soon as they step off the tour bus, Miller says. Has he filled any pages about Eugene?

No. He’s visited, but never played locally with Howlin’ Rain or with his previous band, Comets on Fire. Eugene’s always been hard for him to get a handle on, but word on the touring circuit is Eugene’s really starting to take off, Miller says. 

Miller’s old band, Comets on Fire, was a noisy psychedelic punk band that “didn’t deal in nuance as much as a nuclear blast, a scorched-earth policy,” Miller says. The band’s been on hiatus since 2008.

With his current group, Miller wanted to get back in touch with his hippie side, leaving punk behind for a mellower acid experience. 

Last year, Howlin’ Rain put out The Alligator Bride, collaging southern rock — think less “Sweet Home Alabama” and more Sweet Home East Bay — as well as roadhouse blues, the Grateful Dead and, such as in the opening riff of “Missouri,” a little Rolling Stones. 

A lot on the album could be broadly considered jam rock. Miller’s singular guitar tone, however — still noisy and aggressive in its own way, playing the part of Nels Cline to Howlin’ Rain’s Wilco and a holdover from Miller’s time with Comets on Fire — means Howlin’ Rain are pretty much just rock ‘n’ roll, albeit from a very specific period in time, the era of long sideburns, bell-bottomed jeans and wide-lapeled, floral-print shirts. 

Referring to Cline’s work with Wilco, Miller says, “He helped take Americana music, split it down the chest and turn it inside out.” A summation that’s not so far off from what Howlin’ Rain seems to be all about.

This summer, Howlin’ Rain released Under the Wheels: Live from the Coasts Vol. 1, a five-track live EP that Miller hopes will be the first in a series of live recordings modeled after the Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks series.

When putting the live collection together, Miller looked for a particular kind of energy, even if there were some blemishes in the recording or in the performance.

“Up on stage, I’d say it’s ideal about ten percent of the time. What passes as feeling really good at the club, you listen back to the recording, you hear things,” he says. Someone’s guitar cable slipped, or Miller was singing a little out of tune. “You kind of float through some of those things. You kind of blend that.”

What Miller loves most about the Dick’s Picks series is how the Dead presented themselves as fallible human beings.

“These guys were deified, but they didn’t try to deify themselves musically,” Miller says. “They put it out there, warts and all. It’s incredible. It’s a very, very human sound.” 

Howlin’ Rain plays with Ferns and Pink Pollen 8 pm Friday, Sept. 13, at WildCraft Cider Works; $10 advance, $12 door, 21-plus.

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