Thursday , May 29, 2014 - 2:17 PM
The Steel Wheels, playing the Ogden Music Festival this Saturday, are a contemporary band whose roots dip deep into the traditional sounds of Appalachia. They blend blues and folk and bluegrass and old-timey sounds in general into something new and fresh as springtime.
The band includes Trent Wagler, primary songwriter and guitarist and lead vocalist, Jay Lapp, mandolin guitar and vocals, Brian Dickel on upright bass and Eric Brubaker on fiddle.
Wagler, who called from the tour van on his way to Washington, D.C., explains: “We don’t set out to play just traditional music, but it is a good leaping-off point. We have a lot of respect for that, and, every once in a while, we will play an old song. It is a context from which we kind of draw, but it is most exciting for us as a band when we are creating new stuff.
“For one thing, by writing new music, we are not limited to the repertoire — although the repertoire is enormous. But we want to take what we know, create something new, draw from our experiences, which are obviously different from the songs written 100 years ago. Implied in that, however, we ask the audience not to forget. We respect the older tradition, the craft, and the men and women whose shoulders and civilization we stand upon.”
Growing a band
The band started when Wagler came from Kansas to Virginia to college. He was studying theater and worked a few summers playing in the pit band at a nearby outdoor venue.
“They did a number of musicals and part of their niche was doing it in an Appalachian style,” said Wagler. “And because I played music, I was forced to be learning this stuff, and the first summer I was there I met a Nashville fiddler who just really, throughout that summer, filled my head with a lot of music and a lot of new stuff.”
The beautiful outdoor setting, the music he was absorbing, and the history of the place all had a huge impact on Wagler.
“It built my respect and understanding — a living-history component that really struck me. It was an incredibly inspirational way to spend time.”
Wagler soon went looking for people with which to make a traditional band.
“Brian and I played in a really bad rock band in college. He left school and started building guitars, but was still in the area.”
The two ran into each other some years on, and it turned out that Wagler, who had played electric bass in the bad rock outfit, had taken up guitar. Dickel, in turn, had laid down his electric guitar and taken up the stand-up bass.
“I asked if he wanted to get together, very natural. I think we played a gig or two as a duo.”
While the Wagler/Dickel duo percolated, they decided one other solo instrument might fit nicely. They both thought of Brubaker, who had played in a band in college with Dickel, and sung in college choir with Wagler.
“He was kind of known as being a top-notch fiddle player,” said Wagler of Brubaker. “He played in a bunch of old time bands, bluegrass band, and he got on board.”
Lapp was a friend of Wagler’s who already played in a band. When Wagler, working solo at the time, opened for Lapp’s band, he asked his friend to join him in the opening set.
Said Wagler: “I knew he was a very good improv player, and I said, ‘Hey, play with me, I’ll just yell out the key and we’ll go.’ I kept him up there all night, we had a great time, and after his band played, we started talking. Every time we could get him to join us, we did for a while.”
For about four years, everyone kept their day job, but they were playing when they could, where they could. Then, in 2010, Lapp joined the band full time, and soon after, they released their first album.
“We were ready for what was to come, because we had a handle on the situation. We learned what we needed to about playing a room, a crowd, before we ever took off for different parts of the country. We were setting ourselves up as good as we could before hitting the road. And we have an interior life that keeps the band together, based on friendship. That is more than half the battle.”
Wagler said that the band has not played Ogden before, but has played the Moab Music Festival.
“We are really looking forward to playing Ogden,” he said. “The lineup looks great and that is always a way to tell it is a good time. The collective energy of so many different acts, and getting to see what people are doing, there is something to that. That is very different from a club show or something, where you are just hopping up and playing.”
The band loves festivals so much that last year, they started their own — the Red Wing Music Festival July 12 and 13 in Mount Solon, Va.
As their schedule allows, they also organize and perform the SpokeSong bicycle tour. For that, the band members not only use pedal power to get from gig to gig, they also tow all instruments and gear. Some tours have spanned as much as 11 days, 600 miles and 10 shows.
Though these are ways to make the band stand out from the pack, Wagler said it is not about being gimmicky.
“I think the model for the music business has been turned on its head in many ways. With so much access, anyone can release an album. There is a lot of noise out there. To draw people’s attention to what you are doing is not as simple as releasing another album.
“But I hope our bicycle tour and festival are grounded in who we are. I believe it is. Both enable us to really interact with people in a down to earth way. We almost always stick around to say hello after any show, but with a multi-day festival, you get to really hang out.
“And the bike tour makes you so vulnerable.” He laughed. “You ain’t no famous musician. You are a kook on a bike tour. But again, you get to know folks. And it gives you cool partnerships in those communities — things like bike initiatives, local food movements, and craft brewing. Bicyclists tend to have good relationships with like-minded groups.”
Wagler said while the festival and the pedaling is challenging, it is very worthwhile.
“You sure feel vulnerable at times, doing things that way. But we get to play at the end of the ride, so that makes it really worth it.”
The 2014 OFOAM schedule:
Friday, May 30
5 p.m. Utah State Instrument Championships, fingerstyle guitar
7 p.m. Triggers & Slips
8 p.m. Della Mae
9:30 p.m. Alejandro Escovedo
8:30 am. Utah State Instrument Championships, fiddle and flat picker
Noon Sweetwater Crossing
12:45 p.m. Bluegrass Rising
2 p.m. Jeff Scroggins & Colorado
3:15 p.m. Shook Twins
4:45 p.m. The Hillbenders
6 p.m. Della Mae
7:30 p.m. The Steel Wheels
8:30 a.m. Utah State Instrument Championships, mandolin and banjo
Noon The Hollering Pines
1 p.m. Marley’s Ghost
2 p.m. Don Baker Award honors Joe McQueen
3 p.m. The Steel Wheels
4:14 p.m. The Duhks
6 p.m. The Hillbenders
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