The Pinkerton Raid has been 35 years in the making. On the night of Jan. 9, 1977, Ronald DeConto was on the stage at The Alewife, a pub in Somerville, Mass. Right in the middle of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” he got the news from a waitress, who got it from the bartender, who got it from Ronald’s wife, that his son was coming into the world. In the ‘70s, Ronald made his living playing Top 40 covers in dance halls and hotel lounges up and down the East Coast, so it might come as no surprise that his children would carry on his musical legacy. But for the firstborn son they named Jesse James, rock’n’roll was outlaw music, and he’d have to grow up before he could stake his claim.
Jesse spent his childhood with his Mom in fundamentalist Baptist churches, where even Christian rock was given the evil eye. After his younger years hearing his Dad play “House at Pooh Corner” or “Rocky Raccoon”, but finding his own musical voice only through sacred hymns, Jesse finally tried to learn guitar so he could sing Richard Marx’s “Now and Forever” for his girlfriend. That motivation, though, couldn’t push him past the pain in his fingers, and he quit.
Three years later, he came home from his freshman year of college to find his kid brother playing Led Zeppelin and Beatles covers with Dad, and he didn’t want to be left out. “My little Christian high school wouldn’t let one of my classmates play his electric bass in chapel,” Jesse said. “Once I got out, my family needed a bassist, so that’s what I learned.” The DeConto family played together for the next 10 years as the retro pop cover band Von Fluggi and the original folk-rock band Oscar Begat. The Pinkerton Raid was born in 2010 when songwriter Jesse James joined with his sister Katie and guitarist Kris Peacock to create a new sound that The Pinhook venue owner Nick Williams calls “atmospheric Americana.”
Jesse and Katie spent their childhood on the move: new towns, new schools, new friends. As their parents bought, fixed-up and sold old houses from Kerouac’s Lowell, Mass., to far western New Hampshire to the Atlantic seaside, Jesse played hide-and-seek in a graveyard near the Vermont border and braved hurricanes on Hampton Beach. In adulthood, his newspaper career took him through a deadly Ohio tornado, a New Hampshire primary, and then to North Carolina, where he spent five years with The News & Observer, much of it as a crime reporter. Katie graduated Milligan College in 2007 and joined the publishing industry. In 2011, brother and sister both left the struggling corporate media to pursue their own independent creative projects. Controlling their own schedules accelerated the recording process, and they finished the last five songs of their full-length self-titled album in six months -- half as much time as the first five.
The songs sketch characters from Jesse’s travels: street kids in California, weary worshippers at the communion rail, generous bartenders, hard-up songwriters in seedy pubs, a flirty piano-teacher in a hipster nightclub, a fatal attraction, a lonely divorcé in Paris, a sleepy baby in her parents’ arms. “Once I got out of my cloistered world, I found it wasn’t so easy to figure out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys,” Jesse said. “That’s what The Pinkerton Raid is all about. I always thought Jesse James was a stupid name, but once I grew up I decided to embrace it. The James Gang is fascinating. There’s the outlaw mystique, plus a kind of Robin-Hood legend – robbing the rich and becoming heroes for the poor, even if they didn’t actually share what they stole. And then you’ve got the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, these private, mercenary police like Blackwater, firebombing the James Ranch on behalf of the train barons. They killed Jesse’s and Frank’s half brother and maimed his mom. Who do you root for? I’m usually writing about the good and the bad I see in the very same people, including me.”
These stories float among Katie’s layered keyboards and lush harmonies, Jesse’s pensive melodies and groovy bass lines and Kris’ sparkling guitar textures and soaring background vocals. Kris was inspired by Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly tribute films as a kid in the ’80s then felt the tremors of the Seattle grunge revolution all the way across the country in rural Georgia. The big dynamic changes and haunting melodies still resonate in his hollow-body guitar. The band came together in the retro-pop renaissance of North Carolina’s Triangle region, sharing strong influences like the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young with a core of local acts. But other influences emerge, from the jazzy Americana of Over the Rhine to the anthemic indie rock of Arcade Fire and The National.
Studio wizard Mark Williams collaborated with producer Jeff Crawford (Mount Moriah, Brett Harris, Mandolin Orange, Luego, The Tomahawks, Skylar Gudasz, Roman Candle, Max Indian) to blend these disparate influences into a sound at once familiar and still unpredictable, from loungey piano pop to atmospheric rock to quirky folk balladry. These 10 songs can entertain, but they also explore deeper themes like abundance and scarcity, racial division and the purpose of art, hearkening back to Jesse and Katie’s Dad strumming Vietnam protest songs on college campuses in the early ‘70s. It’s sonic storytelling set to outlaw pop, both sensual and sacred, usually at the same time: honest, sad and danceable, like playing in the cemetery.