Wood & Wire and Old Salt Union

Wood & Wire and Old Salt Union

Performers:
Wood & Wire
Old Salt Union
$12.00
All Ages
Wood & Wire and Old Salt Union @ Hodi's Half Note

Wood & Wire

The Texas songwriter tradition casts a long shadow today, and Austin-based Americana roots juggernauts Wood & Wire could easily rattle off a long list of songwriters that inspire them from Willie Nelson to James McMurtry, and everyone in between. But ask them about what it is about Texas that brought us so many great songwriters, and they stop cold. That’s because they don’t romanticize their culture or their past, they’re too busy working their asses off making new music, writing new songs. This isn’t a land made for quiet reflection, it’s a land made for hard work. Respect for honest labor is a central theme in Wood & Wire’s 2018 GRAMMY Nominated album for “Best Bluegrass”, North of Despair ( Blue Corn Music), with songs populated by people like songwriter Tony Kamel’s own grandfather, who built the family’s hunting lodge in Llano, Texas with his own two hands. The characters on the album live large, and aren’t afraid to share their opinions about the modern world. This kind of vivid, haunting songwriting focused on lives spent deep in the countryside is a hallmark of Texas songwriting. But it’s the melding of this hard country songwriting with high-octane bluegrass instrumentation that makes for Wood & Wire’s signature sound. Artists like John Hartford have trod this ground before, mixing up great songs, bluegrass virtuosity, and a strong sense of place, and Wood & Wire aim to pave the way for Austin’s roots scene, bursting out of the giant expanses of the state with a fully-fledged vision for a new Texan sound. On North of Despair, they bring the ferocity of their live shows to the studio, whipping through barn-burning anthems about hard people in hard times.

Wood & Wire could have returned to Nashville to record North of Despair, but the pull of home was strong, so they elected to work in Dripping Springs, just outside of Austin in the Texas Hill Country. Holing up at renowned studio The Zone, they cut the tracks mostly live to tape, with minimal editing. Touring hard for the past three years helped solidify the songs, and you can feel the impromptu joy in each track. Bassist Dom Fisher lends a buoyancy to the music that mixes racing bluegrass bass lines with the backbeat of a great country bass player. A highlight of the group is the interplay between mandolinist Billy Bright and banjo player Trevor Smith, both of whom seem to delight in pugilistic bouts that romp through the songs, as much country-funk as it is Monroe & Scruggs. Though Kamel is the lead singer and songwriter, each band member contributes compositions and songwriting to the new album, a key feature of Wood & Wire’s democratic nature. Bright’s “Summertime Rolls” propels a fire-breathing mandolin line, but he takes a more philosophical stance on “As Good As It Gets.” Fisher’s co-write with Texas songwriter Robin Bernard, “Texas,” has all the balletic grace of a great Western that reminds one of Townes Van Zandt. Kamel taps not only into his family’s history in Texas, but also his love for the beautiful natural environments of the state and the raw power thereof; in “Awake in the Wake” he references the sound of cypress trees breaking apart during a thousand year flood.

Wood & Wire considers itself fortunate to exist “south of rich and north of despair”, buoyed by family and friends to keep them from the bottom. Never ones to shy away from hard work, Wood & Wire rely on their humble acoustic instruments and their own hands to make music meant to last. As Kamel sings “I ain’t trying to be the kingpin, I’m just trying to make a living.”

Old Salt Union

A great band is more than the proverbial sum of its parts, and in the pursuit of becoming something that can cut through the clutter of YouTube stars and contest show runner-ups, a great roots music band must become a way of life. Less likely to rely on production or image, they’ve got to connect with their audience only through the craftsmanship of their songs, the energy they channel on the stage and the story that brings them together.

Old Salt Union is a string band founded by a horticulturist, cultivated by classically trained musicians, and fueled by a vocalist/bass player who is also a hip-hop producer with a fondness for the Four Freshmen. It is this collision of styles and musical vocabularies that informs their fresh approach to bluegrass and gives them an electric live performance vibe that seems to pull more from Vaudeville than the front porch.

In 2015 they won the FreshGrass Band contest and found the perfect collaborator in Compass Records co-founder and GRAMMY winning banjoist and composer, Alison Brown, whose attention to detail and high standards pushed the group to develop their influences from beyond a vocabulary to pull from during improvisation and into the foundation of something truly compelling in the roots music landscape.

Violinist John Brighton mentions some names familiar to the Compass roster as key influences, musicians like Darol Anger, Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall and Mark O’Connor, all of whom have collaborated with Brown in the past. Primary vocalist and bassist, Jesse Farrar (for the indie rock heads - yes, he’s related – Son Volt front man Jay Farrar is Jesse’s uncle) brings an alternative rock spirit as well as his unique formative experiences as a hip hop producer and bass player for a national tour of The Four Freshmen. The band’s self-titled Compass debut combines these instrumental proclivities with pop melodies and harmonies into a coherent piece of work that carves out a road-less-travelled for the band in the now crowded roots music genre.

The album kicks off with a nod to alternative rock sensibilities – a deconstructed symphonic drone creeps in slowly, while Farrar emerges through the atmospherics to deliver the first lines “Stranded on a lonely road/Trying to find my way back home/A dollar and a broken heart/Didn’t seem to get me very far”. His words are followed by a dramatic moment of silence (a trick often used in hip hop) that quickly launches into “Where I Stand”, a hard-driving bluegrass track that gets moving so powerfully you almost don’t notice the layer of angelic harmonies flowing consistently underneath.

Mandolinist Justin Wallace takes over lead vocal duties for the second track “Feel My Love” as well as a version of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”. He pops up again on his composition “On My Way” and his no-frills, approachable voice is the perfect complement to Farrar’s more gymnastic style. The two work together beautifully on the Wallace-penned, “Hard Line”. Wallace is further showcased on the disc’s lone instrumental “Flatt Baroque”, composed by Brighton, who joins him in some twin mandolin, and it’s this more contemplative moment on the album where the listener hears him reaching to be in perfect sync with his bandmate, that best reflects Wallace’s role in the evolution story of the band. If Farrar has emerged as the heartbeat, then Wallace is the soul.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the band was founded by banjoist Ryan Murphey, the aforementioned horticulturist who came to bluegrass music and the banjo later in life. Finding a kindred spirit in Dustin Eiskant, the band’s former guitarist and Farrar’s cousin, the pair started the band in 2012 and Murphey played the banjo and led the band’s business through its early incarnations, including the recruitment of Farrar in 2014.

When Eiskant quit in 2016, just as the band’s already impressive trajectory seemed to be taking a significant step forward, Murphey and the band were able to reset, adding guitarist Rob Kindle to the lineup. Kindle brings a bluegrass foundation from his early exposure to the music as a child in family settings, as well as a degree in jazz performance to the mix.

Though the band had established themselves as a growing festival act with performances at LouFest, Stagecoach Festival, Bluegrass Underground, Winter Wondergrass, Freshgrass, Wakarusa, Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Festival, and the 2014 Daytona 500, it was their breakout track on Spotify, “Madam Plum” that seemed to amplify awareness of the band beyond the bluegrass bubble.

Of working with the band in the studio, producer Brown says, “These post modern bluegrassers are true renegades. While they look like a bluegrass band, their musical sensibilities run much deeper and broader, borrowing as much from indie rock and jazz fusion as from Bill Monroe. And, even more exciting to me, they know no fear! They are wide open musical adventurers and we had a great time experimenting in the studio at the crossroads of these disparate influences.”

The most unexpected but possibly most fascinating song on the album is a ballad entitled “Bought and Sold”. Its earnest beauty is balanced with a youthful inventiveness that leaves a solemn mark on the listener who might wake up at the end of it thinking, “What just happened?”.

At this point, the future of the band seems marvelously unclear. The album closes with “Here and Off My Mind” which seems like the bluegrass song that Conor Oberst never wrote featuring a lyric that ends with the promise of “a better life” though from the all-hands-on-deck jam session that breaks out in the middle (is that a kazoo?) one gets the sense that the band can’t imagine a better one than they have in the beat up Winnebago they currently call home.

Venue Information:
Hodi's Half Note
167 N College Ave
Fort Collins, CO, 80524