Valley Noise: The Haymarket Squares are Phoenix's punkgrass pioneers

By combining bluegrass and punk rock and affectionately calling it “punkgrass," the Haymarket Squares revive the traditional sounds of Appalachia with punk mentality and politically-edged humor.

Slide guitarist and vocalist Mark Allred described punkgrass as incorporating the radical, nonconformist attitude of early punk rock while maintaining the classic sound of bluegrass.

“It’s the parts of early punk rock that were like ‘shake your fist at the man’ and the energy and the DIY and all that good stuff,” he said. “And then bluegrass instrumentation (and) four-part harmonies. Lots of energy, but still bluegrass.”

Mandolin, banjo player and vocalist Mark Sunman and stand-up bassist and vocalist Marc Oxborrow said they met through Craigslist in 2007. The pair jammed together in a few other bands before forming the Haymarket Squares in 2009.

“The first three people in the band all came together via Craigslist,” Oxborrow said. “It may be the only band in the world that that has ever happened for."

Since 2009, the Haymarket Squares have released four albums, the most recent being “Light it Up.” The album was released in February and was recorded at Flying Blanket Studios in Mesa with producer Bob Hoag.

The band members said they plan to tour California and New Mexico in the summer as well as make appearances at the Keystone Bluegrass & Beer Festival in Colorado and the Pickin’ in the Pines bluegrass festival in Flagstaff.

Oxborrow said the band’s “punkgrass” sound has garnered wide appeal with both punk fans and bluegrass fans in and out of Phoenix.

“We’ve been able to hold our own on lots of different kinds of bills,” he said. “We’ve done fine playing with punk bands because of the energy, and then we can play with super-traditional bluegrass bands. The music sounds enough like what a traditional audience might be looking for that they dig it, too, even if they don’t like our politics.”

In fitting with the band’s name (Haymarket Square was a commercial center in Chicago, where in 1886, a labor demonstration turned into a deadly riot when an unknown anarchist threw a bomb at police), many of the songs include political satire. Songs such as “I Hate This City” and “I Fell in Love with a Republican” poke fun at the Phoenix area and its right-leaning politics.

“Phoenix is the Donald Trump of cities,” said guitarist and vocalist John Luther. “There’s never-ending material.”

On Thursday evening, The Trunk Space’s soon-to-close Grand Avenue location held its final Haymarket Squares show. The band broke the venue’s “no cover” rule by playing a bluegrass rendition of “Kiss” by Prince, as a tribute to the late pop icon.

Sunman said he had mixed feelings about Phoenix’s music scene, but appreciated the spontaneity that local musicians offer.

“I like how it’s really eclectic,” he said. “There are a lot of different weird styles coming out. That’s a lot of interesting stuff happening, but there’s also a lot of crap, too. Crap can turn into something good and interesting, so that’s okay.”

The Haymarket Squares will perform at Last Exit Live in Phoenix on May 20.

Related links:

Valley Noise: decker. combines psychedelia, folk and desert living

Valley Noise: Rapper Dadadoh breaks post-punk mold, becomes producer


Reach the reporter at idickins@asu.edu or follow @sailormouthed92 on Twitter.

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