Freewheeling Dustbowl Revival loves working without a net

SHARE Freewheeling Dustbowl Revival loves working without a net
SHARE Freewheeling Dustbowl Revival loves working without a net

BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Dustbowl Revival manages to create a freewheeling sound by drawing from a vibrant mixed bag of American roots music: folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, Dixieland and gospel. One listen and you quickly realize this is a fresh musical mix that takes what may seem disparate musical forms and finds the common denominator.

“You don’t expect to find a string band onstage with a brass band,” says band founder Zachery Lupetin. The idea formed after seeing Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band perform together. “Those raucous horn players next to those down-home bluegrass guys was so unexpected, and they sounded so good.”

DUSTBOWL REVIVAL When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 Where:Space, 1245 Chicago, Evanston Tickets: $10-$18 Info: (847) 492-8860; evanstonspace.com

The Venice, California-based band is among the growing list of groups featuring young musicians tapping into the roots resurgence and capturing the attention of hipsters far and wide.

Evanston native Lupetin moved to the West Coast in 2007 with hopes of becoming a successful screenwriter. He studied film and creative writing at the University of Michigan, but music was never far from his mind.

Lupetin had studied classical violin as a child but rebelled against that training in his teenage years when he played electric bass in a rock band. “We performed in local clubs but none of our friends could come see us because they weren’t 21,” he says, laughing. However rock wasn’t the only thing sinking in; there also was Dixieland and blues from his father and the gospel and traditional folk that his grandfather loved.

Lupetin didn’t start playing acoustic guitar until college, when he began writing songs and “wanted to tell stories in a more straightahead, emotional way,” he says. “I think acoustic music does that more honestly,”

Early on in L.A., Lupetin, like many transplants, found it tough going (“It’s not for the faint of heart”). So he posted a series of ads on Craigslist looking for musicians of a like mind.

What started as a collective with artists dropping in and out now has a firm core of eight players: Lupetin (guitar), Liz Beebe (vocals, ukulele), Josh Heffernan (drums), Connor Vance (fiddle), Daniel Mark (mandolin), Matt Rubin (trumpet), James Klopfleisch (bass) and Ulf Bjorlin (trombone).

Onstage in an attempt to keep every night fresh, Dustbowl Revival works without a net — no set list. Lupetin likes to “read the audience” and put together the show on stage in the moment.

“It’s more fun and exciting when you can stretch out and layer the songs to create an experience,” Lupetin, 29, notes. “We want to have a conversation with the audience. We don’t want to simply go through the motions.”

Dustbowl Revival’s songbook features memorable original numbers but the influence of traditional music also is a key factor in the band’s repertoire. It’s most recent album, “Carry Me Home,” features a handful of traditional songs — “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “John the Revelator,” “Shine” — that have fresh musical arrangements and sometimes new lyrics. The results modernize the songs without loosing the historical accuracy embedded deep within.

“It’s a really fun and challenging exercise as a writer to take a tried-and-true song like ‘Swing Low’ and build a completely new story around it,” Lupetin says. “I’ve never been content just playing standards over and over. I want to add our voice to that tradition by twisting the form into a more modern feeling.”

Besides he adds there no arguing the staying power of traditional American songs.

“There’s a reason why at the end of our shows we play ‘Down By the Riverside’ and people of all ages sing along with all their heart,” Lupetin says. “Music that’s timeless always lives on.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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