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Duck-billed folk: (l-r) Matt Durfee and Mike Poulopoulos.

PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

Accidentally Happy

Fate, luck, or a heady concoction of the two has things looking mighty fine for Albany-based country-blues duo Palatypus

By Mike Hotter

It isn’t easy to write an engaging song about being happy and contented, at least if you’re aiming for something above the caliber of, say, “I’m a Barbie girl/in a Barbie world.” One of the most striking things about the work of Matt Durfee and Mike Poulopoulos, the two guitarist-singers better known to local-music lovers as Palatypus, is how refreshingly angst-free most of their tunes are. Yes, in accordance with the country and blues traditions from which they draw their inspirations, many of the tunes deal with an absent lady and the occasional overindulgence with the bottle. But these things are delivered as a matter of course rather than a cry of lament—part and parcel of the working musician’s late nights and lonely roads.

The story of Palatypus is a familiar one: Two bright young men fall in love with music at an early age and find that they can best express themselves to the rest of the world through singing about it, because sometimes words themselves just get in the way. Take the origin of the duo’s name, for instance.

“We were at the Lark Tavern for an open-mic night,” Poulopoulos recalls, “and [someone] misheard my name during introduction. It went something like, ‘Mike Poulopoulos, good to meet you.’

‘Mike wha . . . ?’

‘Poulopoulos.’ Screaming electric guitar solo.

‘Palatypus?’

[Later], during a half-drunk stagger outside of Caffé Lena, Matt suggested Palatypus and it stuck.”

Their willingness to act on serendipity, or what can be termed “the happy accident,” is one of the many subtle and unexpected qualities that make these two musicians particularly intriguing: Beneath the low-key demeanor of Durfee and Poulopoulos thrums the sort of ambition that occurs when taste, talent and a bunch of really good songs collide.

Durfee’s fingerpicking guitar- playing technique first germinated when a high-school classmate named Kirk (“an older, hippie-type of kid that I looked up to”) heard the young Durfee picking away outside on the school lawn.

“He had heard me playing and mentioned that he had this mix tape of an artist that he thought I’d like,” Durfee says. The artist in question was Leo Kottke, renowned for his idiosyncratic approach to country-blues fingerpicking. “Hearing Kottke play really opened my eyes to the fact that a song doesn’t have to be easy to get, or radio-friendly, to be incredible. I started to focus my efforts on the quirks of my playing and voice, and tried to turn them into elements of style for my music.”

After a couple of years of schooling in Fredonia and some experience playing bass with “a couple of older guys” in a band named Spun, Durfee returned to the Albany area to lick his wounds and tally up his musical strengths and weaknesses.

“I started to play with my acoustic more and more, and decided to take some lessons,” he says. “I spent about 2 1/2 months studying with Glenn Weiser, and took away some fingerpicking exercises that he’d shown me. I started to experiment with some open tunings, and felt like I’d had some sort of epiphany: I was able to take all the years of playing I had under my belt, and all of the years of songwriting I’d done, and have this whole new technique with which to create music. I wrote a lot of songs, and tried to keep them as honest as possible.”

With a newfound sense of purpose and direction, as well as a fresh batch of songs, Durfee started to make the open mic rounds in late 2005. Spring of 2006 saw him winning the Lark Tavern’s Singer-Songwriter Competition, with the music critics of Metroland crowning him 2006’s Best Male Singer- Songwriter a couple of months later. While the accolades were starting to trickle in for Durfee as a solo act, he surprised some with what occurred next—namely the formation of the duo known as Palatypus.

Poulopoulos, a recent college grad and blues-guitar aficionado, had started to visit area open-mic nights more and more in an effort to hone his singing and performing chops. While he was enjoying a good survey of some of the area’s most talented musicians at Artie’s River Street Stage in Troy, Durfee came in to play the open-mic one night and proceeded to impress Poulopoulos mightily.

“Matt’s fingerpicking and songwriting style amazed everyone in the room,” Poulopoulos says. “I recall the drifting smoke pausing for a listen.”

When Poulopoulos had his turn on the stage, Durfee was likewise affected.

“There was this incredible, honest vibe to the set, and the lyrics to his originals were so great, straight-ahead and memorable,” he recalls. A jam session was soon in the offing.

“We met up at his previous place on Parkwood Avenue, over by School 19,” Poulopoulos remembers. “We sat out on his 2nd-floor porch, and he laid down a golden melody on “Again by Your Window,” spun from alchemy. Too good to let pass, so fucking good.”

Palatypus have been hard at work ever since, branching out from local clubs like Red Square, Valentine’s and Positively 4th Street to a quickly expanding list of venues in Massachusetts and New York City. And soon the other shoe will drop, with the release of a five-song EP titled Lazaretto.

“The hope for the EP is that we’ll be using [it] for getting our [feet] into doors,” Durfee explains. “We’ll be sending them to college and regional radio stations, well-established clubs and listening venues, and generally building some word-of-mouth before we start production on full-length releases later in the coming year.”

An impressive affair, Lazaretto fleshes out the duo’s signature catchy folk-blues tunes with a fuller but never cluttered sound. Percussion and subtle guitar leads frame the two vocalists, Poulopoulos’ sturdy highway songs bringing to mind Stephen Stills and, at times, the group America, while Durfee sets his flexible and soulfully quirksome voice free on the final track, “Horse to Folly.” The songs are delivered with a quiet fortitude and faith in the music they create.

Though Durfee stresses that, even taking the misspelling into account, “Palatypus has nothing to do with the animal,” the man whose misheard surname inspired their moniker has a slightly different take on the matter.

“The only relation to the animal that I’ve been able to rationalize is that our approach to our sound, while intricate, is basic when placed in the spectrum of contemporary music,” Poulopoulos opines. “I think we’re a bit of an oddity. Strange and compelling, a cohesive collection of parts—like the animal.”

Or maybe just one more happy accident.

Palatypus will celebrate the release of the Lazaretto EP on Aug. 17 at Red Square. The event will double as a release party for the debut EP by fellow Indian Ledge Records artists Alta Mira. Tickets are $8 in advance (contact Palatypus or Alta Mira) or $10 at the door; both EPs are free with admission. The all-ages show (there is an additional $5 charge for those under 21) starts at 8 PM. Palatypus will appear on WAMC 90.3 FM’s Performance Place program this Monday at 11:23 AM to discuss the release party and the label, and to play some songs from the upcoming release.


ROUGH MIX

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@metro land.net or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.

 



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