Earlier this spring, possibly even the first day of spring, Brandy and I busted out of our winter-battered houses, boots, and souls and headed out of town for a day of unbridled adventure. The warm, sunny day actually required sunscreen and we looked forward to a day outside and a night of live music with two of our favorite local musicians. First up was a trip to the Richmond Zoo to try out their Treetop Zoofari which is just a really cheesy name for a ropes course. For a reasonable fee, you guide yourself along 40-ish challenges, sometimes balancing your Jell-o legs across some strung together two-by-fours, sometimes climbing a twenty-foot completely vertical ladder to a two-foot square platform a hundred feet in the air, and sometimes zipping on a line perched just high enough that zoo animals can noisily chase, but not catch, you. There were some white-knuckle moments, yes, but the level of concentration it required made us forget everything for a couple hours. The wind was crisp and bright. Everything felt new. The best part was when we approached the final stop where we’d unhook and remove all our gear, and the employee smiled at us and said, “Oh, are you two enjoying a mother-daughter day?” Perhaps Brandy shot him a warning glance, because he slowly backed up, as if we were bears on his trail, and then disappeared. Back in the car, we applied make-up and changed clothes for phase two: Jack Brown’s over on Grove Avenue! And who did we see there? Ol’ Matt Abraham who used to work at the Harrisonburg location. We sat on the lively patio with other first-of-spring revelers and caught up with our friend Sarah. But the icing on our cake that day was a trip to Culpeper to see Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wild Hearts perform. Beers in hand, we made our way to the front row, eager to see both Bryan and his opener, Justin Jones, also of the Burg. Justin performed alone, him and his guitar and his harmonica, but his laughter and his humor and his perfect, pulpy, tender voice filled the stage, disarming and hushing the enamored crowd. Not only did I get to see Bryan’s performance that night, but not long thereafter, I had a chance to chat with him. Sitting across from him, I realized I’d only ever seen him holding a guitar, leaning into a microphone. On that day he held a flimsy cup of coffee and rubbed fatigue from his eyes. I reminded myself that this average-sized, soft spoken man in front of me was the same one who blows the roof off every place I see him play, with his loud, five-piece band The Wild Hearts and his giant thunder voice. Born and raised in Dayton, Virginia – the land of horse-drawn buggies, farmers’ markets, and redbuds just south of Harrisonburg – Bryan first cut his musical teeth playing guitar at age five, then in the awkward realm of middle school band. The band director, using some kind of one-size-fits-all questionnaire, tried to peg him as a trumpet player, but Bryan insisted on percussion. Later he played guitar in Turner Ashby High School’s Jazz Ensemble. In late high school he took guitar lessons, and even scored a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. When I asked, “And then?” he answered, “And then? And then I just started writing songs.” Bryan and current band-mate Jeff Miller (banjo) formed a band called Albuquerque for about three years with Michael Stover (now of Shenandoah Alley). After Albuquerque (circa 2007), Bryan quit performing live for a bit and instead worked on a farm milking cows to save up some cash, then recorded a truckload of music (according to Bryan, about ten albums worth), a fraction of which comprised his first Bryan Elijah Smith solo album Forever On My Mind (2009). He toured Virginia and the southeast coast on his own, promoting the record, and linked up with Staunton-based musician Nathan Moore to tour the northeast. The Wild Hearts formed in 2010, and over the years the band has evolved to include, in addition to Bryan and Jeff, Jay Austin (violin), Justin Shifflett (drums), and Blanks Blankenship (2014). Now more than a decade into his career, Bryan has played all over the U.S. and even toured Australia last year – a long stretch from a cattle farm in Dayton where he owns a production studio, Empty Sound Productions, that allows him to balance his love of writing and performing with his love of recording and producing his music. Describing himself as “obsessed” with learning the methods of his favorite producers and staying abreast of emerging technologies, excitement shone on his face as he talked about his recent analog/digital studio overhaul: “Being able to paint a sonic picture that I see in my mind is worth a million words to me.” His most recent release, These American Hearts, involved a year and a half of writing more than 100 songs, followed by a grueling selection process, but resulting in what he calls an honest album. All his music is “honest,” per se, he explained – it’s all “true to the time and head space I was in when I made it,” but with age and experience he’s stopped trying to make songs adhere to a particular label or category and just let the songs be what they are when they “come to me.” Indeed, he’s hard to pin down when you ask him what music he likes to listen to. He’ll list Dylan, Waits, and Springsteen as influences; newer artists, though, like Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, and War on Drugs are never too far from his stereo. Likewise, his own music is neither country nor rock, neither blues nor bluegrass. He is all those things, authentically, and he believes his most honest record is still out there, in the ether, waiting for the right time to descend. Bryan remembers fondly the local basement shows of the early days – the Crayola House, little restaurants and pubs — which gave way to festivals, and theaters, his favorite venue. So when Brandy and I saw him and The Wild Hearts at the State Theatre in Culpeper – a grand old space where their sound had room to stretch and songs could morph into twenty-minute jams – we witnessed the full expression of them as musicians. Fibers hung from Jay Austin’s exhausted bow like long strands of corn silk. The whole place rumbled like a train platform, every seat abandoned after the first song. Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wild Hearts have a busy summer lined up, with performances all over Virginia, including several area vineyards, Wintergreen Resort, and The Southern in Charlottesville, to name a few, before Red Wing Roots Music Festival, the spectacular creation of Harrisonburg Action Figure Jeremiah Jenkins that brings together upwards of forty bands for three glorious days at Natural Chimneys State Park in Mt. Solon. Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wild Hearts hit the Southern Stage at 2pm on Friday, July 10. Copyright © 2012-15 · All Rights Reserved · ilovemyburg.com. Written content by Katie Mitchell. Photos by Brandy Somers. This material may not be copied, downloaded, reproduced, or printed without express written consent. Thank you for respecting our intellectual property.
We knew what to expect from The Steel Wheels when we saw them last month at Clementine: a packed house, invigorating and contagious energy, weighty yet lucid lyrics wrapped in poetic harmonies, unbridled talent, and beatboxing. (wait… ?) But we weren’t so prepared for the opening band — Red Molly.
When we got there at 8ish, we found a tiny open space at the bar, right in front of the beer taps, which was both lucky and convenient, since I was still ON FIRE from our dinner at Indian American Cafe. The ladies hit the stage shortly — Abbie, Laurie, and Molly, dressed in frocks and boots and surrounded by assorted stringed instruments like the banjo, Dobro, and guitar.
Red Molly’s first number, “Dear Someone,” silenced the unsettled crowd, their clear, expansive voices ringing like church bells on Christmas Day. They performed a cappella, which speaks to their level of talent. No warm up needed — they were perfect from the first note to the last. I guess making sixteen albums (sixteen!) — some as Red Molly, some as individual artists — makes you great at what you do. They played several songs from their most recent LP Light In the Sky (which they’re promoting right now on their Australian tour. I think it’s crazy that I saw the same band that someone else is seeing right now half a world away — here in Harrisonburg.). “Hold It All” — described as a lullaby — is a lovely number about love’s paradox: “It seems there’s no escape/We are part beauty and part heartbreak/But I want to hold it all.” We have to. Either that, or hold nothing.
They followed it with a ditty by Dolly Parton called “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” that got everyone’s feet tapping again, and by the sixth song, hair stuck to Molly’s sweaty face like cat whiskers. One of their final songs was Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen,” appropriately punctuated by the kitchen employee who walked through the crowd for some high-fives. :)
By the time Trent Wagler and The Steel Wheels began, the stage was slick with sweat and tears and hot as asphalt trousers in July. In Arizona. They didn’t care one little speck!
Fun facts about The Steel Wheels:
1. Their new album No More Rain comes out next month!
2. They’re headlining their Red Wing Roots Music Festival at Natural Chimneys in July! (featuring Yarn, Larry Keel, Scott Miller, Justin Jones, the Judy Chops, and more)
3. Trent and Brian started their musical relationship as a duo at Dave’s Taverna.
4. Jay and Eric have known each other since preschool.
5. Some of them bear an eerie resemblance to other people. Like Trent and Will Farrell, for instance. :-)
They started their set with an expert rendition of Tom Waits’ “Walk Away,” which is just about as ballsy as Red Molly’s opening song. They ripped through several songs from their previous release Lay Down Lay Low, including the title track, which, depending on how you feel at the moment, is about surrender… or defeat. Sometimes you want to “finally fall down” because “it’s quiet there.” Other times you give up just to find some peace, even if it’s alone. And then later in the show, the song with beatboxing. Yes, beatboxing. Called “Spider Wings,” which reminded me a lot (thematically) of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” The line that made my pen meet the paper is “You got too much, you don’t got anything.” I love lyrics that obliterate meaning. Joni does that a lot, too. Ah, futility. How insignificantly full life would be without you.
Although Brandy and I had consumed a heaping helping of bluegrass, for dessert we thoroughly enjoyed a boot-stomping, knee-slapping, yee-hawing finale comprised of both bands and a fat dollop of twang. I think Brandy’s shoes can testify to the fun we had with these two bands and their enthusiastic followers! Looking forward to more boot – shredding shows!
Copyright © 2012-13 · All Rights Reserved · ilovemyburg.com. Written content by Katie Mitchell. Photos by Brandy Somers. This material may not be copied, downloaded, reproduced, or printed without express written consent. Thank you for respecting our intellectual property.