Zero Degrees of Separation: Bacon Brothers bring brotherly love to The Birchmere

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — We’ve all played the celebrity name game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” but the closest degree of separation for the prolific actor has always been his lifelong musical relationship with his older brother Michael.

This weekend, the Bacon Brothers bring their country-folk-rock sound to The Birchmere for three shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday, alongside acclaimed Australian country artist Ruby Boots.

“It’s a really longstanding club with a great tradition that was around when I started in the music business a long time ago,” Michael told WTOP. “We started playing there 15 years ago, eventually went to two nights and now we’re at three nights, so it’s been a really successful thing for us.”

What makes the venue such an ideal place to play?

“Some clubs it’s basically the audience is the act, whereas The Birchmere … there’s not a lot of people talking when the band is playing. I think we do well in those kind of venues,” Michael said, to which Kevin echoed, “When you come into the club, I don’t know if they put little things on the table or people just spread the word or whatever, but they make it pretty clear that this is a listening room.”

Born in 1949 and 1958, respectively, Michael and Kevin grew up in a large family in downtown Philly.

“It was a tall, five-story, skinny townhouse and we have four sisters, so there’s six kids in the family coming in and out,” Michael said. “By the time Kevin was born, some of my older sisters were probably in college. But it was the kind of house that creativity was encouraged above everything else. Painting lessons, guitar lessons, dance lessons, acting lessons, music lessons, that’s what we got.”

Michael admits it was a double-edged sword at times, but the arts training eventually paid off.

“Maybe to the loss of other things, like my father wasn’t into sports, we didn’t go out to dinner a lot, but when it came to the arts, that’s what it was. So I was always playing music since I was very young, and when Kevin came … he was probably banging on a can. … My sister and I had a band and he used to be pretty fascinated by that. When he got older, I bought him a guitar and taught him how to play ‘Hey Jude,’ and later on, he was playing percussion behind me when I was out doing gigs by myself.”

The brothers’ relationship flourished as the age gap eliminated any potential for sibling rivalry.

“We didn’t fight, and one of the reasons we didn’t fight is that Michael is nine years older than me, so we’re not even Irish Twins,” Kevin said, laughing. “It was more the type of thing where I looked up to him as a musical influence and a teacher. I went off and was doing acting and Michael was still playing music and playing in bands, and it wasn’t until the ’90s that we had this Bacon Brothers thing.”

In 1995, after years of casually helping each other perform, the brothers officially banded together.

“What happened was a friend of ours from Philly where we grew up, he heard this demo we had done of songs we were hoping to pitch to other artists to get recorded,” Kevin recalled. “They were songs that we had written together but they were not for us to sing. [The friend] said, ‘Why don’t you call the band the ‘Bacon Brothers’ and come down to Philadelphia and play a show and I’ll promote it?'”

So what started out as a one-time gig quickly multiplied into a domino effect of tour dates.

“That was really just for that one show,” Kevin said. “Then somebody heard the band or called up and we got another one, then we did another one, and then another one, and eventually we did a record.”

Now that the band was recording, they needed a release strategy of the type of music they’d make.

“When we put the band together 20 years ago, we took a different tact,” Michael said. “Instead of writing songs for other people to record, or writing songs for Kevin’s movies, or get-rich-quick songs, we turned the corner a little bit and tended to do songs that were a little more personal. So when you come see the band, you’re basically hearing 90 percent of the songs we’ve written over the years.”

How has the duo evolved musically over the years?

“It’s really dramatic,” Michael said. “When we did our first gig, Kevin wasn’t even planning on playing the guitar because he didn’t feel like his skills were up to it, but I pretty much insisted. … I think as musicians, both of our skills, craft and musicianship has gone way up over the years. … The band has gotten bigger, it’s gotten better, the songs are better, we’re better in the studio. … When you do something you love … you want to make sure you’re progressing and improving, and I think we are.”

On stage, each brother brings a unique persona to the band.

“One of the things that’s kind of fun about the show is that you kind of see two very, very different personalities that have a very different approach to performing and to life,” Kevin said. “My brother is incredibly funny and dry and he doesn’t have the desire to take up space in the same way that I do. He’s happy to let the songs speak for themselves and he puts a kind of energy out there that’s more about drawing people into them, and my thing is more about shoving my stuff down people’s throats.”

What can we expect to hear this weekend at The Birchmere?

“We try to mix the set up,” Michael said. “By the time we get to The Birchmere, we’ll probably have four new songs, then we brought back some older things from earlier CDs that we had gotten tired of singing and now we’re sort of revisiting them. … So I think the people that come to hear us will hear a lot of music they’re familiar with, and of course, a lot of people won’t be familiar with any of it.”

A lot of those songs have crossed over into the film world. “Chop World (Carry Watter” was in the film “The Woodsman” (2004), “When You Decided to Stay Too Long” was in “Red Betsy” (2003) and Michael scored “Loverboy” (2005), which Kevin directed and starred across his wife Kyra Sedgwick.

“We always would like to have more of that,” Kevin said. “One of the things you always hope for as a band is that someone will pick some song up and license it for a film or a commercial. We’ve had various people throughout the years we’ve hired that helps with that song placement, but frankly, with the amount of material that we’ve had, I wish there had been more of that going on.”

Sometimes it works the other way, like “Live with the Lie” from “Telling Lies in America” (1997).

“I never thought of it so much as a Bacon Brothers song because it was kind of written for the band in the movie to play, they were an early ’60s R&B band,” Kevin said. “Yet the song, the way we’re doing it now, it’s one of our favorite things to play. So sometimes it works the other way in that the song wouldn’t have existed except for the fact that I knew they were looking for songs for that movie.”

Just like that, the Bacon Brothers are inextricably linked to cinema, which inspired WTOP to end our interview with a rapid-fire word association as the brothers took turns riffing on Kevin’s movies.

***

“Animal House” (1978) 

“Oh, documentary,” Michael said without hesitation. “When I was in college I was in a fraternity and there was a house exactly like that. They were all the misfits and they were the only house that was actually getting the girls. All the preppy houses with all the good-looking frat boys, they didn’t get anything. So to me it really was, ‘Animal House’ was on my college campus.”

“Friday the 13th” (1980) 

“Arrow through the throat,” Kevin said.

“Diner” (1982)

“Amazing cast,” Michael said. “In fact, Steve Guttenberg is my locker buddy, so it’s fun when we talk about that experience. It was the first real breakout film Kevin had. I remember seeing him on the street and there were people lined up around the block to see it, so that was pretty exciting.”

“Footloose” (1984)

“I’m sorry what? Uhh, ‘Footloose,’ fill me in, I’m trying to remember that one,” Kevin joked. “Nah, I’m just kidding. A great song by Kenny Loggins.”

“A Few Good Men” (1992)

“Just a great story, I love those kind of courtroom trial things,” Michael said. “That was a tough part because, frankly, a marine officer is not exactly who my brother is in real life.”

***

After riffing on five flicks, we cut the boys loose to continue their music tour. Moving chronologically through Bacon’s filmography barely scratches the surface before you get to the thrills of Curtis Hanson’s “The River Wild” (1994), the inspiration of Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), the crime drama of Barry Levinson’s “Sleepers” (1996), the voyeuristic horror of Paul Verhoeven’s “Hollow Man” (2000) and the Oscar-winning mystery of Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” (2003).

Through all the roles — from John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987) to Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) — it’s easy to see how the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game was born. But hearing the brothers riff back and forth, it becomes increasingly clear that there are zero degrees of separation between the Bacon Brothers, two Philly boys living out the mantra of their City of Brother Love.

Click here for ticket information. Listen to the full interview with the Bacon Brothers below:

November 29, 2020 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Michael & Kevin Bacon (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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