The Toughcats spend a lot of time on the road these days, traveling to and from gigs around the country in a 15-year-old van. But the Fox Islands-spawned acoustic trio still call Maine home and will introduce their new album to the Midcoast with two very different benefit shows this weekend.

The Toughcats will perform a concert to benefit the Unity Barn Raisers Friday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Unity College Centre for the Performing Arts at 42 Depot St. On Saturday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m., they will provide the soundtrack for a tropical dance party to benefit Partners in Health’s medical work in Haiti at the Rockport Opera House at 6 Central St.

“Different” is nothing new for The Toughcats, whose mostly original music is hard to characterize but easy to enjoy. Although they have experimented with a number of instruments, these days the trio are perfecting the combination of banjo, resonator guitar and suitcase, the latter sometimes supplanted by a drum kit. Their tunes combine indie folk/rock, pop, bluegrass and old-time elements, making the trio a good mix with a variety of other artists, from Deerhoof to The Mammals. Last year, they teamed up with Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show for a couple of shows.

Joe Nelson, who plays a gleaming National resonator guitar; multi-instrumentalist (including the occasional glockenspiel) Colin Gulley; and drummer Jake Greenlaw, who has been likened to Sesame Street’s Animal in his approach, did not set out to start a band as many young musicians do. Some six years ago, they were all involved in a benefit concert on North Haven, Nelson as a solo performer, Greenlaw in a band and Gulley among the organizers. As start time approached, it was clear the show needed a little more music.

“So, like five minutes before the show, we came up with a couple of songs we could do and it sounded really good,” said Gulley. “We never intended to start a band; it started organically, which I think is pretty cool.”

The three men, all of whom sing, come from different places, musically, he added, which has contributed to their distinctive sound, on both originals and covers, which can range from old-timey to the Ramones and ’80s fare. The new CD, “Run to the Mill,” is all original tunes save the 1920s-era “Dinah.” The Toughcats are pretty pleased with the music on the new album, most of which was recorded at North Haven’s Waterman’s Community Center, and, so far, their audiences have been too.

“People are really excited about it, and we’ve had a lot of success on this tour,” Gulley said last week, calling on a cell phone from somewhere in Kentucky.

Said several-week tour included a sold-out show in Brooklyn, N.Y. and, for the third year in a row, the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo., an event that features live music between screenings. The trio regularly play around Maine and New England, but have added more and more of the country since they were in Austin’s famed South by Southwest Festival in 2007. This summer, they will do a West Coast swing.

The Toughcats originally toured in Gulley’s pickup truck, but have been relying on the old Dodge Ram van for several years now.

“It’s from Vinalhaven, so we’re a completely local outfit,” said Gulley.

But this weekend’s Midcoast two-punch will signal the start of a bit of a home stay, home being Portland much of the time these days for Gulley and Nelson and North Haven for Greenlaw. Gulley will be working on a Children’s Theatre of Maine production in Portland, Nelson will be doing a soundtrack for North Haven’s Pull-Start Pictures and Greenlaw will be getting out the paint brushes for some house painting jobs.

Brushes — long, sturdy plastic-handled brushes — are Greenlaw’s weapon of choice when he practices the fine art of suitcase playing. The unusual pursuit began about five years ago when Nelson brought in an old wooden suitcase because he had an idea it might make an interesting sound. Six or seven suitcases later, the theory holds steady.

“It has to be an old wooden suitcase, so it has a good, empty bass sound,” said Greenlaw, who uses the heavy-duty brushes because they make a good “thump and crack.”

Greenlaw has made a study of the acoustic properties of his old suitcases.

“Each side has a different sound; one end is high and the other has a lower pitch,” he said.

“It’s quite a sound and it changes as it starts to break apart,” said Gulley.

The Toughcats show no signs of breaking apart any time soon. Although they are excited about the new album, which will be available at both the local events, they still regularly play pieces from their debut “Piñata” and a lot of tunes that haven’t been recorded as well. The big repertoire of originals and covers allows the trio to put together different shows to suit their varied gigs, and this weekend is no exception.

“Unity Centre is kind of a sit-down venue, while the Rockport gig could turn into a dancing ruckus,” Gulley said. “It’s not better or worse but a different kind of energy. And both are for really cool causes.”

The benefit aspect especially appeals to The Toughcats as they release their new CD to the Midcoast. They never intended to be a band but they are and they are enjoying the experience.

“This is a way of giving back, both to the local community and globally,” Gulley said. “That’s a big part of what we’re doing.”

Tickets for Friday’s concert at the Unity College Centre are $15; for more information, call 948-7469 or visit

Saturday’s dance party at the Rockport Opera House, organized by Shannon Thompson of Lincolnville, is expected to sell out so grab tickets at HAV II in Camden, Rock City Books & Coffee in Rockland or online at; the minimum donation is $20. According to the event’s poster, “silly, sexy, splashy summerwear” is encouraged.

For more information about The Toughcats, samples of their music and some fun videos, visit

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to