Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Steel Wheels at the Parlor Room - Narthampton, MA



The Steel Wheels

We first saw The Steel Wheels at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival three weeks ago and were blown away. About fifteen minutes into their show, Irene turned to me a said, "Go buy all their CD's." That never happens! We listened to them all the way home during the next two days. When we learned they were going to be at the Parlor Room in nearby Northampton, MA we quickly made our reservations for seats in the small (fifty seats), elegant room, making sure we got there early enough to assure the kind of seats we wanted.  

The Parlor Room
 

Located just off Main Street in downtown Northampton, home of Smith College, The Parlor Room is sparsely decorated with pictures of the many performers who've come through over the years. It has small tables and a few rows of seats as well as very good, warm sound. A snack bar in the rear serves coffee, tea, and soft drinks as well as home made cookies. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own beer or food, and there's The Woodstar Cafe next door serving a wide variety of snacks, pastries, sandwiches, and meals at reasonable prices. There's paid parking in a lot nearby,  but precious little street parking in this very busy small town. The Parlor Room is an excellent venue for hearing all sorts of music. 






The Steel Wheels have forged a unique sound, simultaneously spare and haunting while being rich and full-bodied. Their music is soundly grounded in the Appalachian chain from which they spring, yet informed by their shared Mennonite backgrounds and deep commitment to building community as they seek to have their music reflect their lives. An example of this fusion can be found in their annual bicycle tour in which they bike from gig to gig. This year's bike tour will be in North Carolina. Called Spoke Songs, it happens in late August. The dates are on their tour schedule. They combine mountain sounds with Cajun lilt and some nearly bluegrassy tunes. Whatever their influences, and they are many, the Steel Wheels remain unique.

Trent Wagler
 
In prefacing "Red Wing," a traditional song his grandfather taught him, Trent Wagler comments that their music is deeply grounded in tradition, but takes from all the influences present in today's music. He speaks of the responsibility of carrying on tradition while, at the same time, handing it off to the next generation to take it where they will with  respect and the courage to interpret it in their own way. Here's a video of Steel Wheels singing "Red Wing."

Steel Wheels - Red Wing - Video
 

Clustered around the single mic, Steel Wheels is always a team. Often Wagler's distinctive voice dominates, but the trio and even quartet melds seamlessly as a melodious whole when called on. Jay Lapp on mandolin and guitar sings close harmony and sometimes dominates the stage, peering directly into the audience with intensity. Eric Brubaker on fiddle is tall and lithe, wrapping himself around his instrument and then caressing the sound.   Brian Dickle on bass anchors the band with a strong, but never overwhelming, beat, always right in place to sing or play and his bowed bass provides an exquisite drone. The complex choreography helps keep interest high while never seeming forced, even while their instruments are miced. The sound is fully acoustic, and full-bodied without ever becoming overwhelmingly loud.

 Jay Lapp with Eric Brubaker

Eric Brubaker


Brian Dickle


The Steel Wheels - I Don't Love You Like I Should - Video


There's a sense of connection between audiences and The Steel Wheels, a feeling of being in direct contact with the music, the band, and the individuals in the band in one of their performances. They reach out with real emotion borne of experience and their own connection to their roots. Attending one of their shows, especially in an intimate setting like the Parlor Room, is one of shared experience that's not common in musical performance, but when it happens, it's electric and immediate. 


The Red Wing Roots Music Festival

The Steel Wheels will be hosting their own festival, The Red Wing Roots Music Festival, from July 12 - 14, 2013 in Mt. Solon, VA. This family friendly festival will be a no smoking event (of which there should be lots more) with carefully controlled adult beverages and one of the best lineups around. We tried to figure a way to get there this year, but just couldn't work it out, but it sure looks and sounds like a good one.

With music varying from plaintive ballads to rousing, dance inspiring, spirit lifting tunes, the Steel Wheels are not to be missed. Listen to this medley and Enjoy!

The Steel Wheels - Blueridge Mountains/Honey Bear/Hangman's Reel
Video
 

The Steel Wheels will be performing in Collinsville, CT this evening and in Clinton, NY tomorrow. Check out their tour dates.