April 16, 2009

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Their duty to rock
Manchester’s Duty Free matures its sound
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Since a missed plane in 2002 led to their formation, perhaps it’s not surprising that the original line-up of Phil Butt, Travis Fuller, Eric Tuner, Tom Benson and Eric Boulter would end up calling themselves Duty Free.

“I went on spring break in Key West with some friends when I graduated from college,” said vocalist Phil Butt. “We had a little too much fun, I guess, and missed our flight, so we decided to play in the street to get money together for another ticket. Pretty soon we had a big crowd around us, and even had bar owners coming out asking us to play. On the plane ride home, we thought, hey, maybe we should start a band.”

The group soon started playing covers as well as original Duty Free tunes around the state, with their roots firmly entrenched in soul sounds.

“Folk and soul are probably my biggest influences,” Butt said. “I love Motown, James Brown stuff, so we do a lot of classic re-worked covers.”

The band’s biggest break to date came in August 2006, with a state and regional battle of the bands for New England. “Jillian’s hosted the local, regional and state rounds,” Butt said. “We ended up winning those and then we got a call from the national competition.”

Duty Free was among 250 competing bands from across the United States and Canada, and was eventually crowed the national champion. The band was then asked to open the 2006 Amsterjam Festival in New York City, which featured acts like Tom Petty and the Foo Fighters.

“That was the coolest thing to ever happen to us,” Butt said. “To come from the deck at Jillian’s and then play at this huge festival. I think people backstage could probably tell that we were a little starstruck the whole time. Dave Grohl cut me in line there and I was just like — ‘Go right ahead, man’ — I mean, it’s Dave Grohl.”

After five years, the original line-up dispersed, and in the spring of 2007 drummer Jake Sherman and keyboardist Eric Strathmeyer were added to the band.

“There were some growing pains at first — that’s going to happen when you have new members,” Butt said. “But now it feels like we’re really turning the corner. It’s been positive for our sound because since we have piano and keys now, we can add a lot more to our sound. It’s opening up a ton of genres for us that we needed.”

With the new lineup in place, the band finished their debut album in 2008, Don’t Block the Sunshine. The album provided a chance for the band to showcase their vast musical influences, including funk, hip-hop and folk.

“We had done a bunch of little EPs before, but this album was our first big piece of music that we were able to do on our own,” Butt said. “We funded it ourselves, and were able to do what we wanted from an artistic standpoint. It took a lot longer to do, and more time to perfect, but I learned a lot from the experience.”

The band is looking to get into a studio by the end of the year and has been churning out plenty of new original tunes.

“They definitely have more of a pop approach, as opposed to the more folk and jammy ones we’ve done in the past,” Butt said. “It feels like the music is maturing. After all, we’re getting older too — our outlook on the world is different now.”

Though they are maturing, the band still lives to play as many shows as it can.

“That’s where it is for me,” Butt said. “We always try to get everyone involved in the show, including having me going into the audience with a microphone. We want everyone to get off on the same energy that we do at the shows. I want people out of their seats. I want them to dance.”

The best part for Butt is being able to play with his best friends. “Even going to shows, I can’t decide who I want to ride with in the van,” he said. “This whole last year has been a big restructuring of the band — financially, physically and marketing-wise. Now we’re really starting to get into a groove.”


Duty Free
Saturday, May 16, and Friday, June 12, at 9 p.m., Jillian’s Billiards, Manchester