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Bitter Canyon Finds Closure As Performances Draw Closer

Bitter Canyon-band
Fred Love
The members of Bitter Canyon, from left, are Vedran Surlan, V Ellsbury, Will Pett, and Wally Neal. The pandemic threatened to keep Bitter Canyon’s debut album from reaching an audience, but the band will finally close the loop on properly introducing the album with a pair of live performances this month in Ames.

Ames band Bitter Canyon released a new album on April 7, 2020. This July, they'll finally get to perform it live. After that, they're going to disband.

Members of the Ames psych-soul band Bitter Canyon are preparing to tie up a loose end that’s been dangling since last spring when the pandemic wiped out their carefully laid plans to release their self-titled debut album.

The bandmembers spent a year self-producing a lush and dynamic album with plans for release shows and touring. They set the album’s release date for April 7, 2020, blissfully unaware of how fate and a global health crisis were about intervene. None of those gigs happened, of course. The pandemic froze the band in place, keeping them even from practicing in the same room. Bitter Canyon made the album available digitally on Bandcamp, but that was the only outward sign the album was finished. They even delayed getting CDs and tapes made. An album worthy of Iowa classic status was all but drowned out by the tumult of the pandemic.

But that’ll change this month when Bitter Canyon takes the stage for a pair of shows in Ames, one at the Angry Irishmen on July 9 and the second during the Roosevelt Summer Sundays concert series on July 25. The shows mark their first appearances as a band since the onset of the pandemic. In many ways, the band views the gigs as a means of finally closing the loop on what they started last year. And then, with that unfinished business finally put to rest and no other shows on the calendar, the band may step away once again.

“This Roosevelt show definitely feels like a culmination. It’s been a long time coming to have a release show for our album and sing with our friends,” said Wally Neal, who sings and plays guitar in Bitter Canyon and who wrote half of the songs on the album. “So Bitter Canyon is closing a cycle we started over two years ago, and this summer is the time to catch us, although we may pop up again from time to time.”

The element that assures Bitter Canyon’s album a place among the best Iowa releases of the pandemic era is the unearthly alchemy produced by the vocal deliveries of co-lead singers Neal and V Ellsbury. Neal’s soulful lilt draws the listener into the swirling warmth of the album’s rich ecosystem before Ellsbury turns the entire setting upside down with her gale-force vocals. They split the songwriting duties on the album as well, with both Neal and Ellsbury contributing four compositions apiece.

The dual singer-songwriter approach sets the tone from the album’s first two tracks. Opener “I Want To Be Nothing” features Neal on lead vocals ruminating on the nature of existence and the appeal of oblivion. Gorgeous harmonies swell up during the chorus, giving the song a Laurel Canyon folk-rock feel. The laid-back groove of the verses gives way to a toe-tapping staccato figure that punctuates Neal’s thoughtful lyrics.

On the next track, “Down In The Valley,” Ellsworth’s voice, cloaked in reverb, drives the song seamlessly through a feverish mix of 60s psychedelia, infectious r&b and a haunting breakdown that ascends to an electrified outro. The rest of the album follows this pattern, a dynamic give-and-take as the tracks alternate between Neal and Ellsworth compositions. The songs blend spacious Muscle Shoals grooves with a cosmic sensibility straight out of the 1960s. Many of the tracks feature shifts in tempo, time signature and mood that surprise and delight. And it’s all tied together by the infallibly classic production of Neal, who recorded and mixed the songs at his home studio, the Solarium. Will Pett contributes keys and backup vocals to the album, and Vedran Surlan adds drums. In addition to singing and writing half the songs, Ellsbury also tracked bass and guitar.

“Some of the songs that I do in Bitter Canyon were written before I joined the band,” Ellsbury said. “Originally, I was asked to join and play bass, but soon after that we started jamming on some of my tunes. The songs that came to me after were very raw and from the heart, down to the root of things I was going through in my life at the time. I feel like Wally and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to sharing our soul with others through song.

“So Bitter Canyon is closing a cycle we started over two years ago, and this summer is the time to catch us, although we may pop up again from time to time.”
Wally Neal

Ellsbury and Neal began work on respective solo albums over the course of the pandemic, and focusing on finishing those projects is part of why they’re leaving Bitter Canyon’s future ambiguous. Neal said they’re not retiring Bitter Canyon definitively, just reorienting toward their new projects. Then again, there’s no telling when another opportunity for Bitter Canyon to perform may come around, adding yet another layer of meaning to the July performances.

The Roosevelt Summer Sundays series has become an Ames musical tradition that stretches back nearly two decades. The weekly series takes place on a dedicated stage in Roosevelt Park, and residents from across the community fill up the space with lawn chairs and blankets while kids swarm the nearby playground.

Ellsbury has played some solo gigs this spring, and getting back onstage brought out some nerves. She said she expects the Bitter Canyon shows to cause some nervousness as well, when all the musicians take the stage together after such a long absence.

“I’m also so, so, so excited to jam with people again!” Ellsbury said. “Adding a crowd gets the gears rolling even more.”

This month, a lost Iowa classic of the pandemic era will finally get its due – even if only for two shows.