BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
Actor-comedian Ed Helms is best known for his work in a variety of roles — a fake-news correspondent on “The Daily Show,” Andy Bernard on “The Office” and beleaguered dentist Stuart Price in the “The Hangover” movies. But there’s another side to the actor/comedian that’s about to get some major attention.
Helms, who is proficient on guitar and banjo while also being a darn good singer, is one third of The Lonesome Trio along with Ian Riggs (bass) and Jacob Tilove (mandolin), a band that blends acoustic folk, bluegrass and lovelorn country. They are currently in the midst of a tour to promote their self-titled debut album.
The Lonesome Trio 7 p.m. June 12 Space, 1245 Chicago, Evanston Tickets, $18-$32 Visit: evanstonspace.com
The Lonesome Trio is not some recently born vanity project. Helms Riggs and Tilove met more than 20 years ago, as students at Oberlin College in Ohio, which is known for its music conservatory. While Riggs was studying music (he’s now a fulltime musician), Helms was a film major (he achieved his goal of “hopefully doing something TV or movie related”) and Tilove was an architecture student (today he’s an architectural historian).
“It’s a pretty musical school and pretty much a given that most students are interested in music in one way or another even if they are not in the conservatory,” Helms says. “We simply started playing a lot as roommates and friends.”
They kept on performing and writing songs after they all landed in New York after college. The band found fans at dive bars in New York and clubs like Los Angeles’ Largo but their performances were limited because of their busy careers. The trio also made appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival where they return this month. The current tour is their first playing clubs across the country.
“I don’t think we took ourselves seriously for a long time partly because we were a little self conscious but mainly because it just wasn’t our main gig,” Helms says. They occasionally considered making an album as a Christmas gift for family and friends but they never quite got their act together. Then some musician friends asked the question — “What are you waiting for? Just do it.”
“That was the little goose that we needed to make us really buckle down and take it seriously,” Helms says. “We’re excited to get our music out there and see what happens.”
The trio laid down all vocals and instrumentals for the new album’s 12 songs. It was an important element of the recording process that won out over the crisp perfection heard on the majority of albums today.
“There’s a part of this project that’s for the audiences and part of it that’s for ourselves,” Helms notes. “We wanted to see what we were capable of in the studio. There isn’t a sound on these songs that didn’t come from one of us and our imaginations.”
Helms grew up in Atlanta (“not a bluegrass hub”) where he picked up guitar from a teacher who was really steeped in roots music and eager to share it with his students most of whom were “more interested in learning the latest U2 song.”
“For some reason I really took to this genre,” says Helms who recalls spending summers in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains where roots music is bred in the bone. “It was a sound that resonated with me as the authentic music of this place that I had a strong connection to and loved.”
And since he’s an actor/comedian playing the banjo, one can’t help but ask if Helms has picked alongside Steve Martin, Hollywood’s premiere player.
“Yeah I’ve been very lucky to have had a number of nice picking sessions with Steve,” Helms says, adding as a comedian and a musician “he’s an incredible inspiration.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.