Meet the musicians behind the music
Making the album with The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow
On paper, a line up of five frontmen looks like a recipe for infighting and, actually, just plain fighting. But The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow has been able to harmoniously navigate the transition from musical collaborative to band despite featuring five singer-songwriters — Tory Hanna, Billy Keane, Chris Merenda, Greg Smith and David Tanklefsky — who have all led other groups.
As the Roadshow prepared to record its first full-length album this November, The Eagle interviewed each member to learn more about how their individual stories have contributed to the group's journey thus far and how they might shape where it goes next.
A 'perpetual optimist'
Tory Hanna is so optimistic and energetic that it might seem dubious to those who don't know him well.
"At first I was like, 'He can't always be this charming and nice,'" Merenda said.
"This is the most enthusiastic person I've ever met," Tanklefsky said of his initial impression.
Hanna doesn't deny his sunny outlook.
"I'm a perpetual optimist," he said recently.
His bandmates know that this verve isn't a put-on. Multiple members cited Hanna's positivity, along with his significant logistical efforts, as integral to keeping the group engaged when it was a manager-less collaborative.
"Without him, the band would not exist," Keane said of Hanna, who was the best man at Keane's wedding.
There is a literal aspect to that statement: Hanna's wife, Susie, came up with the idea for the Whiskey Treaty Music Festival, which was held for the first time in 2012. Hanna subsequently invited some of the festival's frontmen, among others, to play with him during his residency at Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn, N.Y. That bunch eventually toured as The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow for the first time in 2014. The group's performances often feature Hanna hyping up the crowd.
"I love music. I love it. It's what really makes me happy. It's an outlet for me," Hanna said over coffee recently.
The 34-year-old Pittsfield resident's passion for tunes can be traced to his parents, Tony and Cheryl, who are both music therapists.
Raised on a dirt road in Buckland, Hanna sang at Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls, where Cheryl is the choir director and Tony runs a community supper on Friday nights. He took up his first instrument, trumpet, in fourth grade, performing for the first time that year with a trio and receiving some strong applause for their efforts.
"I remember that moment being like, 'I love to perform,'" he said, noting that he played trumpet throughout his years at Mohawk Trail Regional High School and into his time at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he joined the school's basketball band for a semester.
Hanna also became hooked on guitar — the instrument you'll often see him wielding onstage these days — during his early teens. He started writing songs when he was 20. He may be preternaturally upbeat, but Hanna isn't predisposed to dodge darkness or merely skim the surface in his tunes, singing about family life with Susie and their nearly 2-year-old son, Quinten.
"I don't think there's anything that's untouchable for me," Hanna said of his songwriting subjects.
Hanna tested his musical mettle in New York City following stints in Buckland and Pittsfield after graduation, moving there with Susie when he was 26.
"Going down there, I was like, 'I'm not trying to be the best, but I'm trying to learn and become part of the music scene,'" he said.
He accomplished that goal, jamming with both savants and hacks over a handful of years. Yet, the audiences were small and money tight, so in 2014, the couple found themselves living down the street from Tory's parents in Buckland. It was a time when the Roadshow was emerging and Hanna was working on his first full-length solo album, "Learning to Share."
"I was busier than I've ever been," Hanna said.
In 2016, the Hannas returned to Pittsfield, where Susie owns a floral and event design firm. Hanna works for Origin Solar Energy, a solar origination startup he co-founded. The company's only other employee lives on the West Coast, allowing Hanna flexible hours. If a serious conflict were to ever arise between the two regarding Hanna's music, well, maybe Hanna would just write a song about it.
"Music, for me, is a smoother," he said. "It smooths out these issues that otherwise may be faux pas or not be approachable."
Vocal skills 'unmatched'
Billy Keane's bandmates hold him in high regard because he's willing to bare his soul onstage. He'll do so on a bar stool, too.
"I've always had this funny thing with music where it's such a big part of my life, but I go back and forth between focusing on it and not," Keane said over a beer recently at Mission Bar + Tapas, where he had his first Pittsfield gig and once tended bar.
The 31-year-old still struggles with why he has resisted fully committing to sound and song thus far in his career. He mentions that music is extremely personal to him; he has always thought musically, as opposed to visually, for instance. Songwriting comes naturally, but without a background in music theory, sometimes he feels overwhelmed by music's analytical side. Sometimes, he doesn't want to let his songs out.
"My defensive walls come up, and I'm like, 'Well, then I'm just keeping it to myself. This is just going to be my thing,'" he said.
When he does let them see the light, they illuminate his inner world. Shifting seamlessly from talking blues parts to soaring harmonies, Keane's voice is versatile enough to capture his ruminations' nuances. His bandmates revere his delivery.
"His vocal skills are unmatched. He can sing within any range that he needs to sing within," Hanna said.
"I do other things well, but I don't sing like that," Tanklefsky said, "and not a lot of people do."
Born in Australia to Bill and Denise Keane, but raised in Mansfield, Conn., Keane joined his church's youth choir when he was about 5. His father was the minister there, helping Billy enroll earlier than normal. At home, Bill stoked Billy's musical passion by playing different genres for his son. But when Keane was accepted to Berklee College of Music, he decided not to go, marking the guitarist's first drift from music. Short stints at Brooklyn College, where he studied writing and philosophy, and the University of Connecticut followed. By his early 20s, he was working as a commercial diver in New Iberia, La., when high school friend Noah Weiss contacted him about producing his first solo album in Pittsfield. Weiss would be based there as James Taylor's assistant for a bit. Though he hadn't been performing any new tunes in Louisiana, Keane accepted, moving to Pittsfield in 2009 and releasing the record in 2010. His first paid gig in the county was in Dalton, where he met Hanna.
"I was introduced to him in passing," Keane recalled of the encounter with his future best man.
His second was at The Red Lion Inn with Taylor and his wife, Kim, whom Keane had met through Weiss. Inspired by the professional musicians surrounding him, Keane decided to stick around the Berkshires, settling into the rhythm of the county's music scene and often performing with his band, Billy Keane and the Misdemeanor Outlaws.
The Misdemeanor Outlaws ultimately disbanded, and now another force threatens to tug Keane away from music these days: practicality. By day, Keane is a realtor with Jan Perry Realty & Associates LLC. He is close to finishing up a bachelor's degree in business administration from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and he's also studying for the LSAT in case he opts for law school down the road. He lives with his wife, Waterfall Perry, in Pittsfield, and wants to do his part to help provide a financially stable life for them.
"I desperately want to play music, but I'm also really afraid of, like, failing," Keane said.
At the same time, he believes that the Roadshow is on the verge of something special with this album.
"I think," he said, "maybe, I can finally say, 'I'm just going to do this.'"
'A little more unorthodox'
"He's kind of like if you took Chewbacca and Jerry Garcia and made one person out of the two — and then stuck a banjo in his hand and a lot of years of experience and a hell of a lot of passion."
That's one way Smith described Chris Merenda, the musician's musician and purveyor of good vibes, who replaced Abe Loomis shortly after The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow was formed in 2014. (He also once had a band called Chewbacca, later shortened to Chewy.) Smith and Merenda are the group's two most experienced players and share some similar stage banter.
"We're both a little more unorthodox, a little more randomness," Merenda said recently. "Tory and Billy are more just the pump guys, the hype guys. Greg and I might tell more of a random story about something that happened during the day."
Keane, who recommended Merenda be added to the lineup, has been a fan of his since the Misdemeanor Outlaws opened for Chris Merenda and The Wheel, a group Merenda still fronts.
"I was like, 'Oh my good God, who is that?' He is incredible," Keane recalled of hearing Merenda's voice for the first time.
"He really does reach some notes that I don't know if anybody else in the band can reach — high, high notes," Smith said. "He'll occasionally go there in his own songs or sometimes for harmonies, and he can also go very low. He's got such an amazing range."
A widely respected musician around Berkshire County for his solo performances and continuing work with The Picky Bastards and The Wheel, the 40-year-old Merenda aims to write physically affecting tunes.
"My favorite songs to listen to are songs that give me goose bumps and let the hair stick up on the back of your neck," he said during an interview at Dottie's Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, the second place he ever played with the Roadshow.
Growing up in Durham, N.H., Merenda heard more than a few of those tracks on WUNH, the University of New Hampshire's radio station. His parents, Mike and Claire, may not have been musical, but they knew how to turn a dial.
"They always joked that they just played the radio," Merenda said.
Claire's late father was a singer, though, and her brothers are impressive guitarists.
"Holidays and stuff, my brother [Mike Jr.] and I would just really admire our uncles' guitar playing," Merenda said.
One of those uncles gave a guitar to the Merenda brothers during their youth. Mike Jr. and Chris, who had already been learning keyboard and drums, taught themselves how to play. By the time Chris was in eighth grade, the brothers had started a ska-punk band together. In 2004, that fraternal connection led to Chris filling in for The Mammals' drummer, one of Mike's bandmates, on a two-month tour. The next year, the band was asked to back the 40th anniversary tour for Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree."
"That was a trip, doing all these beautiful theaters across America, festivals and theaters," said Merenda, who ended up touring with The Mammals from 2004 to 2009.
While on the road, Merenda met his wife, Tammy. The couple decided to make the Berkshires their home. They currently reside in Becket with their three children: 11-year-old Da'Juan and 12-year-old Ja'Quan, who were both adopted, and 2-year-old Angelo. Chris teaches music lessons but is the only member without a day job.
"I'm a songwriter. That's what I'm passionate about," he said.
He doesn't lack for business savvy. At UNH, he studied business administration, which his father taught at the school. He enjoys negotiation and logistical decision-making, often finding himself aligned with Keane.
"We try to protect the band and where it's going," he said.
'A little untamed'
At 14, he crowd-surfed at a Nirvana concert. In his early 20s, he jumped off a Sunderland stage during a gig to ask his future wife out. And soon after moving to New York City, one of his legs fell into a manhole left ajar while he was trying to relieve himself. Greg Smith is definitely a rocker.
"I think part of my style in playing is that it's a little dangerous, if you will, in that it's a little wild. It's a little untamed," the 39-year-old Smith said by phone recently.
Both onstage and off, Smith's energy and musicianship has helped transform the Roadshow into a more rockin' outfit.
"Greg is a wild man," Merenda said. "Even to reference a show, the last Halloween, a year ago, by the end of the night, he was shirtless with a space helmet on, playing his guitar. He's got a really great energy onstage. When he plays his guitar, he's very passionate and puts his whole body into it."
Smith was raised on a Charlemont farm by his parents, Lori Hicks and Omar Smith. Hicks' mother, Betty, gave Smith his first acoustic guitar, and he soon added an electric guitar when his parents gifted him one for Christmas.
"I really fell in love with it," he said.
His first band, Frog, paid homage to grunge, which was big at the time. It played Nirvana at the high school talent show, after which he learned that nobody could hear him singing.
"I really took that to heart," he said.
The next year, he made sure to belt into the microphone.
"I was on my way," he said.
He started revisiting classic rock tunes after high school and joined a cousin's cover band.
"It's still something I love doing to this day, covering a good ol' song and, oftentimes, just doing it the way they did it," he said.
A subsequent cover band led him to a group called Doc Foz, which eventually migrated south to New York City. Before that move, Smith met his wife, Liz, during a weekly acoustic gig at Seven O's in Sunderland. The next week, they talked at greater length, but during his second set, he saw that she was leaving.
"I jumped three feet to the left off of the stage and blocked her from exiting the club, and asked her if she had a boyfriend and wanted to go out," he recalled.
Liz had been planning to move to New York City anyway, so the two dated as Smith worked with Doc Foz. When that group disbanded, Smith began working on a project that became Greg Smith and the Broken English, a band he fronted for nearly a decade and brought to the Whiskey Treaty Music Festival. He became acquainted with Hanna after running into his wife, Susie, in Brooklyn. The two had attended high school together and soon learned that they were both living close to each other in Brooklyn, leading to Hanna and Smith jam sessions. To support his music, Greg worked a variety of jobs over time, including one for a company that took him to some high places.
"I got to go in penthouse apartments and plant tulips on the balconies or out on the terraces of these [high-rises], up on like the 40th floor of a building in Manhattan," he recalled.
When Liz and Greg decided to return to Western Massachusetts in 2015, they rented a place in Buckland, near where the Hannas were staying. They now live in Conway. By day, Smith works as a groundskeeper at Amherst College, continuing a pattern of green gigs. But it's his concrete jungle grit that the Roadshow truly needs.
"New York tries to give you every reason in the world to get the f--- out," Smith said. "It takes a lot of guts to stick with it, and I'm proud that I did."
The 'relaxed' traveler
David Tanklefsky is the only Roadshow member who lives outside of Western Massachusetts. A Boston resident and full-time special projects producer for 7News (WHDH), Tanklefsky inhabits a different world than the rest of the band, one with more honking horns and less time spent with other group members. The long-distance relationship doesn't bother him, though.
"It's just a labor of love. I really don't mind," the 33-year-old said recently by phone.
Tanklefsky's home base poses some challenges for the band, but Tanklefsky himself does not.
"He's just very easy to get along with," Smith said.
"He's such a relaxed, and such a non-confrontational, type of person," Keane said. "When you're dealing with a bunch of frontmen, there's a lot of ego a lot of the time, but he really keeps everybody mellow, and he keeps everybody enjoying each other's company, which is important."
Smith and Tanklefsky helped usher more electric guitar into the band. In the group's early days, the two would often swap acoustic and electric guitars, something Smith still remembers fondly.
"I feel a real kinship with Dave," Smith said.
Tanklefsky brings an improvisational element to the Roadshow that dates back to his youth in Andover, where his parents, Paul and Gay, raised him in a music-loving household.
"They don't play music, but they're definitely huge appreciators," Tanklefsky said.
Paul's favorite bands — the Grateful Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers, among others — became influences for Tanklefsky, who started playing guitar when he was 10 or 11. The music scene in Andover was surprisingly fertile for a suburban area.
"I always try to explain this to people because nobody has really written about this yet, but it was a really magical place to be into music when you were younger. There are all these bands that came out of Andover," he said, mentioning Piebald, Apollo Sunshine and Martin Johnson of Boys Like Girls.
Tanklefsky's first band, Grimis, formed out of a jazz combo class. The group survived through Tanklefsky's college years, studying journalism at Syracuse University and Boston University, and they still perform a show during the holiday season in Boston every year. At one point, Grimis member Andy Doherty shared a loft in Brooklyn with Hanna. Tanklefsky also had two other connections to Hanna. All of them urged Tanklefsky to start collaborating with him. Eventually, the two met and hit it off.
"You can't not be excited when he's telling you about an idea that he has," Tanklefsky said.
Like Hanna, Tanklefsky often writes directly about his own life. The voice in his songs is his.
"My blessing and curse is that I can't really write from any other perspective," he said.
Following a busy October helping out with Red Sox championship coverage for 7News, a packed November recording schedule means that multiple Berkshires trips await Tanklefsky. They don't loom.
"I enjoy driving out to Western Mass. It's always a tranquil ride on Route 2. Sometimes I'll go with my friends, or I'll go with Meaghan [Quinn, his fiancee]," Tanklefsky said. "It's just worked into fabric of the band."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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