For The Mulligan Brothers, self-evaluation reaps big results. 

The Mulligan Brothers photo
The Mulligan Brothers

[Updated] “I’m kind of a tinkerer,” explains The Mulligan Brothers' guitarist/lead vocalist Ross Newell. When the band (Gram Rea, fiddle, mandolin, viola, harmonica and vocals; Ben Leininger, bass and vocals; and Greg DeLuca, drums and vocals) decided to add an upright bass, Newell built one from two suitcases. “I woke up one night, couldn’t sleep, and started piecing it together and built it overnight, never thinking that it would become a road instrument.” He pauses as if reciting a legend. “That’s how it came to be.”

The Mulligan Brothers play Jazz Fest's Lagniappe Stage Sunday at 3:40 p.m., and like the suitcase bass, they are a product of conscious engineering. The band members, all but one based in Mobile, became acquainted around 2011. When Newell met DeLuca. DeLuca and Leininger were a rhythm section that gigged with a rotating cast of musicians, including Newell. Rea started playing “acoustic stuff” with Newell and in 2012 the foursome played their first set together. “It was just magic from the get-go,” says Rea. “We were like, Man, this needs to happen.” Wizened by mistakes of bands past, the veteran musicians adopted a mindful approach, hashing out goals and sharing lessons learned. The discipline paid off. Three months later the band was in the studio and booking gigs. Within a year they were performing for troops overseas and selling one of the most popular records at Jazz Fest 2014—an especially sweet feat since The Mulligan Brothers owes its existence to the festival (“my parents met there in 1975,” Rea says).

The group is still recalibrating. When it came time to record their new album Via Portland, they spent three weeks in the studio laying down tracks together instead of recording their parts separately. For their debut album, “Greg sat down and laid all the drum parts out in his mind and he played the songs with no music. He played all the drums and then we laid bass separately after that. Kind of built the songs that way, but there was really something different about being able to play together at the same time. There’s an energy there,” says Rea.

The album isn’t a drastic change of pace, however. Via Portland maintains the strong storytelling and low-key rootsiness of its predecessor, with a noticeable surge in audio quality. And “So Are You” contains Mulligan Brothers poetry such as “Down her face ran several gushes making dark and jagged lines / just like some tiny Texas oil man struck gold behind her eyes.” But one of the strongest tracks, opener “Wait for Me,” begins with Newell pleading, “Wait for me like the river bed the water” over an unexpected, spine-tingling harmony.

When discussing how The Mulligan Brothers differs from his previous bands, Rea says, “We’re still learning, I think we’re constantly evolving as a band and as a business. We’re constantly having meetings and talking about what we can do better.” Newell agrees. “I’ve never even really known a band personally that shares so much of the workload. I feel like everyday everybody kind of wakes up and thinks, ‘what can I do for the band today?’ I’m very grateful for that.” 

Updated 8:22 a.m.

Gram Rea's name was misspelled in the original post. It has since been corrected.