Bands that blend a wide variety of different influences into a unique style often can’t be categorized in the moment.
The Allman Brothers Band, for example, was simply called a rock act as it climbed to popularity from the late 1960s onward. No one coined the terms “jam band” or “Southern rock” until later to describe such a diverse act’s mesh of blues, jazz, gospel, acoustic, and country music.
Locally, a group called the Smokeboss Militia (www.facebook.com/thesmokebossmilitia) formed two years ago to defy categorization — yet with a very different stylistic blend. Jupiter-based lead singer, acoustic guitarist and songwriter Andy Mensing recorded three albums and toured the United States and Europe with San Diego, Calif., punk band Rat City Riot during the 2000s and 2010s. But the Smokeboss Militia, named after Mensing’s signature hot sauce, rocks while decidedly not being punk.
His girlfriend, Lucia Hare-Leahy, sings telekinetic harmonies with Mensing, but that doesn’t make their act a pop or vocal group. Nor does the fact that she doubles on banjo and mandolin make it bluegrass, folk or country. A third band member, John Ace, plays violin and mandolin, yet that doesn’t make the Smokeboss Militia an Irish or Celtic ensemble.
Realistically, as proven with a cast of local and West Coast guests invited by Mensing for the Smokeboss Militia’s 2023 debut recording Rise Again (Smokeboss Trusted Records), the band is a rootsy amalgamation of all the above. Those three will be backed by the Tony Tyler Band for a Clematis By Night performance in downtown West Palm Beach on Feb. 22.
“I met Lucia at an open mic night at the Brewhouse Gallery in Lake Park,” Mensing says, “so the music and relationship started about the same time.”
“No, the music came first,” Hare-Leahy says, as Mensing correctively nods in agreement. “But I was a bit shocked when Andy asked me to play a song with him. Everyone else that night was doing ’60s cover tunes, but he was relatively new in town and brought such a different form of musical energy.”
The basic tracks on Rise Again were recorded in Hare-Leahy’s Lake Worth Beach living room by Palm Beach Gardens sound engineer Guy Gualtieri, who enhances remote rooms sonically and then captures performances with his traveling studio equipment. Overdubs were then added at his home project studio, along with the tracks captured by the out-of-towners and mixed in by Gualtieri, a Berklee College of Music grad.
Mensing’s heady compositions are largely autobiographical and often about previous relationships, matrimonial and otherwise. “No Girlfriend” is a self-explanatory Led Zeppelin-esque rocker, while the leadoff single “Danglin’“ is a rootsy pop number about a romance on the cliff. The second single, “I’m Out,” features a serpentining, Little Feat-like funk rhythm; “Crush” is a soulful ballad recalling Lenny Kravitz, and “Misunderstood” an accelerated alt-country rave-up with the universally relatable vocal chorus of “I am not misunderstanding, I am just misunderstood.”
A native New Yorker from Manhattan, Mensing’s influences range from East Coast (New York City post-punk alternative metal band Helmet) to West Coast (Long Beach, Calif., funk/Latin/rock act War) and beyond. As a lyricist and songwriter, his versatility also recalls the broad career span of British vocal icon Elvis Costello, who’s veered from his famed 1980s New Wave group The Attractions into several other genres since. Another logical influence is Eric Burdon, the singing Brit who did a 180-degree turn from his decidedly English 1960s pop group The Animals to his funky 1970s albums with War that included their classic hit “Spill the Wine.”
On Mensing’s loping “Trusted,” California-based electric guitarist Ritchie Orduno’s vintage Santana-like solos punctuate the introspective lyrics. Other friends from Mensing’s San Diego days, keyboardists Peter Levin and Roger Rivas, add embellishments on piano and Hammond organ throughout the disc’s 12 tracks.
“There are two additional songs on the deluxe edition you can buy on Bandcamp,” says Mensing. “And Guy did a great job mixing in tracks that Ritchie, Peter and Roger recorded in California.”
A seasonal South Florida resident who captains his sailboat to Virginia annually in the fall, Ace’s violin is an undercurrent throughout Rise Again. Ditto Hare-Leahy’s banjo, with occasional mandolin additions by both. On the album’s title track, Ace’s string work is an anchor, with Hare-Leahy’s banjo providing a percussive pulse and her backing vocals a lyrical hook.
Born in Argentina, raised in Venezuela and England and still sporting a British accent, Hare-Leahy (often identified by her long-standing nickname “Shash”) is a relative musical newcomer compared to Mensing. She also plays in the all-acoustic act Gypsy String Revival.
“I was infIuenced by the spaghetti western films Clint Eastwood starred in,” she says, “even though there was no banjo in the soundtracks. I’d started playing guitar in a trio that never ended up recording or performing live, but I thought it might be more interesting to play banjo, an instrument I’d always loved. I took lessons online, and then this opportunity came calling.”
The band’s occasional cover tunes during live shows mirror the wide stylistic swath of Mensing’s originals — ranging from the roots and country of Steve Earle and Kenny Rogers to the soul and hip-hop of Seal and Cee Lo Green. But with substantial day jobs in legal videography (Mensing) and interior design (Hare-Leahy), the originals-focused couple is perfectly situated not to lean on the income that only South Florida cover bands and tribute acts now seem to generate, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The only ingredients they’re missing are a rhythm section and soloist for their following booking — a March 30 slot at the third all-day, multi-act 561 Music Festival presented by podcast hosts (and Killbillies band members) Ben Childs and Hector Diaz at Mathews Brewing Company in Lake Worth Beach. The Tony Tyler Band is based in the Tampa Bay area, and is traveling southeast for Clematis By Night because of the couple’s familiarity with its drummer, area frequenter Paige Cantrill.
“We just need to find musicians who are both local and who are into this material,” Mensing says. “We’ll definitely play songs from the record at Clematis By Night, along with some covers, since it’s a three-hour show.”
“But the 561 Music Fest will be a shorter set, and probably all originals,” adds Hare-Leahy.
The couple literally and figuratively finishes each others’ sentences as both conversationalists and vocalists.
But in case of a romantic breakup, will the Smokeboss Militia lean more toward Fleetwood Mac or Heart territory? The former carried on for decades with the same personnel after such partnerships ended; the latter cast off musicians as romances flamed out.
“We should’ve consulted our lawyers,” Mensing says with a laugh, “because we haven’t written that part of the contract yet.”
If You Go
The Smokeboss Militia performs at Clematis By Night, 100 N. Clematis St., downtown West Palm Beach
When: 6-9 p.m. Feb. 22
Info: 561-822-1515, clematisstreet.org/clematis-by-night