Isn’t it funny how whenever pop music goes completely to hell, classic Americana always makes a comeback? It happened in the 50s before rock took over the airwaves, when regional hitmakers from previously obscure places like Nashville and Nova Scotia broke through to a mass audience. It’s happening now, if on a smaller scale, since the radio airwaves – aside from college and nonprofit radio – have gone completely dead. “The beginning starts at the end,” Steel Wheels frontman Trent Wagler sings at the end of the second verse of his band’s brooding banjo ballad Walk Away, and he’s right. The Steel Wheels perfectly capture the newschool oldtime esthetic, which no doubt has a lot to do with their popularity. They’re at Joe’s Pub on March 9 at 7 PM for $15.
Their latest album, streaming at the band’s site, is titled No More Rain. It’s sort of a slower take on what grasscore jambands like the Infamous Stringdusters are doing, or, for that matter, what the Grateful Dead were doing in an acoustic vein thirty years ago, albeit more song- than jam-oriented. It’s a mix of mostly midtempo anthems and slower ballads that sometimes work an oldtime vernacular, and are sometimes just your basic jangly rock with acoustic instrumentation and rustic arrangements. Eric Brubaker’s fiddle is the usual lead instrument, although Wagler’s elegant guitar flatpicking, Jay Lapp’s banjo and mandolin and Brian Dickel’s bass all figure equally into their tasteful sound. The songs are expansive, with plenty of room for solos that tend to be on the pensive side. And the songwriting is very catchy, drawing on oldtime Appalachian music as well as country gospel, country blues and bluegrass. If the Steel Wheels were based in New York, they’d be a Jalopy band.
With its fire-and-brimstone country gospel vibe, the album’s aphoristic opening track, Walk Away, is its strongest – and it’s the only one that’s in a minor key. The slow waltz Until Summer sounds like the BoDeans but with a fiddle in place of the electric guitars and an upright bass replacing the rock rhythm section, a formula the band works frequently through the rest of the album. The casual syncopation of Kiss Me draws on oldschool soul music, while Go Up and The Race blend equal parts country gospel and Appalachian mountain music into warmly inviting singalongs, the latter with some spot-on three-part vocal harmonies.
Story has a neat handoff from mandolin to fiddle midway through, while So Long, another waltz, sets an unexpectedly gloomy lyric – the guy’s talking about seeing his ex-girlfriend in heaven – to a sunny melody. Whistle is newgrass with a dash of oldtime Britfolk; I Will, the album’s final track, a newgrass take on a hook-driven highway rock anthem. Corinne could be a Sam Llanas ballad, Oh Child the Grateful Dead – with a Burning Spear-style litany of directions that could either make you grin or roll your eyes. And the expansive neo-hobo tale Water’s Edge sounds like a parable of a modern-day drifer finally finding his niche in New Orleans, or Berkeley, or Bloomington maybe. You know the deal. If this is where catchy, easygoing hitmakers are making their home now, it’s a good place.