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The Unsinkable Molly Boyles 

From Palmer High to shows with legends and back again, one mesmerizing musician follows her own path

Stumbling upon Molly Boyles for the first time is like wandering into a random club in the French Quarter and finding some virtually unknown New Orleans musicians playing better than most nationally known acts.

For a few Indy staffers and spouses, one of those happy accidents took place last November, the night before Thanksgiving, at an annual reunion show for a long-gone Colorado Springs venue called the Hungry Farmer. The event was held at Stargazers Theatre, and Boyles was decades younger than the other musicians gathered on stage. But when she stepped up to the mic with an electric guitar and began to sing "Blue Moon of Kentucky" as convincingly as if she'd been born under one, we all looked at each other, wondering: Who is this?

A few months later, I stopped by a west side club where Boyles was debuting the revamped lineup of Lipstick Voodoo, a band she'd originally put together a year and a half ago with drummer-about-town Teddy Nazario. As Nazario and bassist Jon Janssen skillfully navigated a wide range of musical styles, Boyles' other talented bandmates — keyboardist Charlie Pendergraft and backup vocalist Kelly Buettner — drove home a repertoire of soulful originals seasoned with unexpected but well-chosen covers that ranged from Salt-n-Pepa's "Whatta Man" to Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain."

As she'd done in November, Boyles deftly commanded the crowd's attention, this time with her quirky sense of humor as well as her obvious flair for both singing and songwriting.

On its own, all that would probably be enough. But then there's Boyles' guitar playing, effortlessly shifting from Jamaican reggae to Duane Allman-esque solos, from slow soul ballads to Brazilian samba breakdowns, often within the same song. And once again, the question arises: Who is this?

Family music roots

Although she's only been living there a few months, Boyles' Shooks Run home already conveys a sense of personal history and sensibility.

There's the vintage Ibanez guitar — famously known as the "lawsuit model" after Gibson filed suit over it — that her father gave to her when she graduated from Palmer High School in 1990. The Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz "action paintings" from the all-night concerts she put on in a vacated downtown Los Angeles church. The eight-channel mixing board on the dining room table. The presence of Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and Rocky and Bullwinkle in the Netflix Instant Queue on her TV screen.

And let's not forget the two hyper-kinetic Chihuahuas, Paco and Lee Majors. ("The six-million-dollar dog," Boyles explains. "His jaw had to be rebuilt, but they had the technology!") Or Billy Boy, the comparatively sedate cat she found while living in L.A.'s notorious Watts neighborhood, who came back to town with her after her grandmother fell ill.

In fact, it was this same 1930s bungalow where the young musician used to visit her grandparents, both professional bluegrass musicians who would take their 12-year-old granddaughter along to gigs as their mandolin player.

"They played their whole lives," says the 38-year-old Boyles of her earliest musical inspirations. "When they were younger, they'd play rags and songs from the '40s, and they had a long-running gig at a lumberjack camp where they would play all night long.

"I called here when we played our first all-night show in Los Angeles," she recalls with a laugh, "and my grandma was like, 'So, whatcha get paid?' And I was like [looks down bashfully], 'Not very much ...'"

Funk gets stronger

Boyles covered a lot of ground between her pre-teen bluegrass days and her current exploits around town, fronting a jazz trio as well as Lipstick Voodoo. Among the more notable résumé entries are extensive touring on the jam band circuit, a 2004 gig in which Billy Joel sat in with her band, and putting together an all-female L.A. funk outfit called Hunkamama.

Boyles was all of 15 when she met a "cute-faced guy" named Dave Foster, who had a Mohawk and played lead guitar in a punk-rock band he'd started with some of his Rampart High School buddies. The group was called 9:29 — which happened to be the time they came up with the name — and had just lost its lead singer.

"So of course I said, 'Well, I'm a singer! This is so incredible that we should meet!'" she recalls. "And Dave la-a-aughed and said, 'Oh, well, no, I mean like ... a guy."

A month later, with a gig looming and no guy singer onboard, Boyles was in by default.

Patterning itself after West Coast punk bands like Agent Orange and the Descendents, the group began practicing in the Boyles family basement. Over the next two years, it managed to tour as far as Lubbock, Texas, and won several "battle of the bands" contests, with prizes ranging from Denver studio time to free tattoos for the whole band. (Boyles opted for a small triangle so her parents wouldn't freak out, which of course is exactly what happened.)

Boyles' high-school group also played the Annex, which was the only all-ages club in town, alongside like-minded groups like the Creeps and Blistering Body Pus. (Nice.) Of course, all that came to a screeching halt when a bandmate spray-painted "Live like James Dean" on the side of the building.

After that, the group convinced the Underground to begin hosting Sunday night all-ages shows. They also managed to talk their way into Grandma's Bingo Hall, a local den of elderly iniquity where the band put on gigs in the storage room.

After high school, Boyles hit the road with another band and an ambitious game plan. "We thought we could break through by going to Europe," she recalls. "We were there for a couple of months and realized it was like, you need to be good. And we were like, 'Oh damn it, I thought we could just go to Europe.' But no, you need to be good."

So Boyles came back to the States and got good. She moved to Austin in '94, where she remembers going to see legendary Meters bassist George Porter play. "That was the first time I had seen funk live. I'd heard a lot of James Brown, but man, when I saw it happening live, and what it does to the audience? I was like, 'I want to do this! I want to do this!'"

A decade later, and much to her amazement, the tables would be turned at Northern California's High Sierra Music Festival. Boyles was playing bass in a jam band called Mama Sutra, and Porter was performing on the same stage they'd be playing a day later.

"We were set up nearby, just there on the grass with our generator behind the bus, to kind of get the word out that we would be playing the next day," recalls Boyles. "So I went and watched George Porter play, and then came back just in time to pick up the bass and play when he finished. And then I look up and he was standing there watching me play! And then I couldn't play very well. I was all freaked out — 'Oh my god, my hero!'"

The piano man

Down in L.A., where Boyles and her bandmates had moved in 2000 ("It was like five of us on a couch," she recalls fondly), the musician had an even closer celebrity encounter. Arlan Schierbaum, the keyboardist from her jam band, had gotten a regular jazz gig at the Crustacean, a Beverly Hills restaurant that was at least open-minded enough to let him bring in a Moog synthesizer. The group was between sets when Boyles spotted the Piano Man himself.

"He was walking by and I thought, 'Boy, that sure looks like Billy Joel.' And then he comes up and he's like, 'Hey, are you gonna play music tonight?' And I'm like, this is Billy Joel. He says, 'Do you think I could sit in with you guys?' And I look at Arlan — he's frowning, he doesn't know who it is yet. I'm like, 'Of course you can.' So he walks off and I'm like, 'That's Billy Joel." Arlan's like, 'Oh my god!"

So Arlan had to sit the set out?

"Oh, of course, which I would, too, if Aretha Franklin was like, 'Can I sing a song?' I'd be like, 'Yup, and I'll be off the stage, I will not be trying to do this one with you.'"

It was the summer of 2004, and Ray Charles had just died earlier that week. So Joel led the band through a bunch of Ray Charles songs, including "Georgia on My Mind" and "What'd I Say." But it was at the very beginning of the set, when Joel first stepped up to the mic, that Boyles felt her heart sink.

Years earlier, Boyles had been singing and playing bass in a band called Slack, whose piano player was obsessed with the idea of covering "Try a Little Tenderness." She didn't know how to play it, but her bandmate spent months insisting that they add it to the set.

"Finally it got to the point where I'm refusing to learn this song," recalls Boyles. "So sure enough, Billy Joel steps up and it's like, 'I'm so glad to play for you guys, and we're gonna play "Try a Little Tenderness,"' and I'm like, 'Shit, I do not know this song. I've had 15 years to learn this song, and I do not know this song!'"

Boyles managed to pull it off, just barely, after which the rest was pretty much a cakewalk. (You can find photographic evidence at lipstickvoodoo.com.)

"I would say everybody was loving it but Paul Reiser, who'd come in with him — he wanted to get the hell out of there! The look on his face was like, 'This happens every time I go anywhere with Billy Joel.'"

Developing talent

When Boyles wasn't consorting with Billy Joel and George Porter, she was finally getting serious about playing the guitar given to her by her father, a musician who used to play The Broadmoor.

Ironically enough, her graduation from four to six strings was an indirect by-product of the same boys-club mentality that nearly kept her out of her first band: The rock world isn't exactly overrun with female lead vocalists, and it's even more bereft of female electric guitarists.

"That's actually why I started," explains Boyles. "I got the call to do this all-girl production, just one show. A friend who promoted shows up in San Francisco asked me if I would put together an all-girl band and just play this Pointer Sisters album [Yes We Can Can] for like a thousand bucks. I was like yes!"

So the group decided to continue on as Hunkamama, an all-girl funk band with Boyles as guitar-slinging frontwoman.

"I was already kind of messing around with these girls and writing songs on an old Wurlitzer. But then after months of looking for a female guitar player in Los Angeles, I was like, 'Shoot, I just gotta do this myself.'"

After years of playing exceedingly repetitive bass lines to support the endless soloing of jam-band colleagues — "I started calling myself the bass slave" — Boyles was finally poised to return the favor.

"Yeah, it was my chance to play the 20-minute solos that I had to endure," she says, laughing.

While the novelty of self-indulgent guitar excess quickly wore off, Boyles' fascination with the instrument did not.

"I kind of was starting over, as far as learning how to craft songs and how to play guitar," says Boyles, noting how Hunkamama's Motown fixation gave her license to steal horn parts and adapt them to the guitar. And since the new band was more vocally inclined, she was finally getting a chance to draw upon some of her favorite singers: Etta James, Julie London, Stevie Wonder, Aretha and Elvis.

"A lot of this music is about finding enough space, not playing as much as you would want or think you should. That's really the challenge, to try to play enough to be interesting, and not to play everything you've ever known every time."

Still, Boyles' 12-step program to give up the jam-band aesthetic is not without its setbacks. At one point she admits to being so enamored with the tone of Phish frontman Trey Anastasio's semi-hollow-body guitar that she'd someday like to have one of her own.

Does that mean Boyles could lapse back into her old jam-band ways?

"Yeah, totally," she says with disconcerting enthusiasm. "Once you're on a solo instrument, it's like, 'Oh, this is awesome!'"

Retracing her steps

Although her funk band was landing high-profile gigs at venues like the Mint and the Brown Derby, Boyles had begun to wonder if L.A. was still the Promised Land it had once seemed.

"I was lucky or blessed or whatever just to fall in with some neat, creative people," she recalls. "But at the same time, I was coming up on nine years of being in Los Angeles, and I had a lot of family back here that I would keep seeing on Christmas, wanting to know when I was coming back.

"So when my grandmother was starting to get ill, I moved back here. I got to spend a little time with her before she passed away, and then my mom passed away last year."

In spite of her losses, Boyles says she hasn't been tempted to move back to California. "I had a lot of good friendships there, but it's expensive to live in L.A. and I didn't find the landscape very fulfilling. I'm a mountain girl; that's kind of important to me. And it's been just really neat to be back in this house where my grandparents lived 25 years ago and where my grandma used to give me piano lessons."

Plus, it's not like Boyles hasn't kept busy. Upon her 2008 return, she spent a season doing dinner theater at the Iron Springs Chateau, after which she started her own show called Ms. Molly's Western Cabaret. She currently runs theater camps and educational outreach programs for Imagination Celebration, where she's also planning to hold a weekly variety show that will stream on the Internet.

"I've always thought that she was pretty fearless," says Sean Anglum, who brought Boyles onboard at Imagination Celebration and invited her to perform at the Stargazers event last fall. "Musically, I'd always heard she was great with the blues and that sort of thing, but the way she's also gotten into reggae and New Orleans-inspired music — she'll just take on whatever interests her."

And while an infectious smile never seems to leave her face, Boyles is clearly serious about carrying on her family's musical tradition, as well as reflecting the artistry and generosity of spirit that's inspired her along the way. You sense a real reverence when she talks about the Professor Longhair and James Brown cassettes she wore out in her youth, or when she recalls a Seattle show opening for Ladysmith Black Mambazo two days after the 9/11 tragedy.

"After the attacks on the Twin Towers, we assumed the show was called off so that everyone could head back to family," says Boyles. "But Ladysmith Black Mambazo, of course, couldn't leave the country until flights were allowed."

The South African headliners, themselves no strangers to suffering during their home country's apartheid days, went on to perform a set that Boyles describes as "an act of co-suffering and healing."

"Their show was so intense and emotional and positive," she recalls. "It made me realize that music and lyrics are not necessarily so egocentric, that they can serve as more than self-expression. I was inspired to want to use music to reach out and emotionally soothe and uplift people."

On the day after the tragedy, and before that first act of healing, Boyles wrote a song called "Bird Shadows" that sums it up nicely:

"I can hear her breathing

I can tell that we're movin' on

We are sweetly dreaming

You've got sense enough to keep

hanging on."

bill@csindy.com

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