On Sunday, I left my apartment and entered the fog laden night. I walked the some odd miles it takes to get to Freight and Salvage, my attention plugged into my phone. I periodically and impatiently changed my music, glanced at Google Maps, checked my work email, refreshed my social media, then immediately regretted using cellular data to refresh my social media. This continued without remark. It was what I had been doing all day, busily checking mobile apps, but it was in stark contrast to the rest of my evening.
That night, The Steel Wheels, an acoustic folk band, made the first stop of their California tour in Berkeley. Freight and Salvage is an intimate venue with wood paneled walls, a small bar and a modest exterior. It was a fitting location.
After the first two songs of their set, The Steel Wheels’ front man Trent Wagler, repeated a phrase that was posted outside the venue. Music is Community. There has never been a more important time to come together with loved ones and friends and enjoy art and music, he said.
“There are a lot of others things being written and we need to sit together and be inspired,” he continued. It was presumably a dig at the state of contemporary politics.The audience gave out a collective chuckle and nodded their heads in unspoken understanding.
In an interview, Wagler said his music captures a desire to escape the noise and the tremors of politics and find a “semblance of peace.” This theme is tantamount on their newest album, Wild As We Came Here. Even Trent recognizes this as “idyllic and perhaps even unrealistic at times” but says he feels it timely. The album, he says, is the reflection of a disgust with day to day American discourse. He said, “It is a time that feels more noisy than any other time I’ve been alive.”
“I want to write songs that aren’t too topical, that would be dated in five years but at the same time we are people living right now,” he explained.
This feeling of disconnection while seemingly infinitely connected is a bit of a cliche at this point. But everyone in the audience seemed to be in on the suspension of modern realities. There was not a cellphone in sight. This phenomenon could either be explained by the demographics which skewed noticeably older or the fact that everyone was captivated by the music. Take your pick.
Admittedly, I walked in a bit of a skeptic but I realized that to fully appreciate the band you have to hear them live. Their musicality is undeniable. The band’s members easily switched between instruments; the guitar swapped out for a banjo and swapped again for a mandolin. The fiddle, played by Eric Brubaker, an exceptionally large man with an exceptionally small instrument, was a highlight of the evening. And it is all punctuated by Wagler’s warm and crooning vocals.
There is something fascinating about acoustic string music. The simplicity of pulling strings and the resulting sound. It is an experience as fundamental as music itself. There was nothing flashy, no production, no light show—just five guys with instruments. After dabbling in punk and other genres, that simplicity drew Wagler to his “quasi-bluegrass” sound.
He could also have been innately drawn to it because of his Virginia origins. The band formed over ten years ago, informally at first, just a group of friends who played some music together, Wagler recounted. But soon later they started recording and took some sage advice–play as many shows as possible. Currently, that means about 100 days on the road–a third of their lives spent away from home.
Wagler and The Steel Wheels call the mountains of Virginia home and there is a wealth of its influence in their music. The Blue Ridge Mountains extend from northern Pennsylvania to the southernmost point of Georgia. The range is blanketed by oak-hickory and pine forests that from a distance are said to appear blue. It is a region that has captured the imaginations of Americana folk singers for generations.
The entire Appalachian region is steeped in American mythos. A number of genres can be traced back to Appalachia, least of which being bluegrass. But, Wagler would prefer his music be called Americana roots, an amorphous genre that incorporates a number of American musical traditions. He counts the legendary American guitarist Doc Watson as one of his influences.
“It does slightly feel confining to be called bluegrass, and yet if I’m walking through an airport and I’m carrying my banjo and somebody asks, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ I’ll say bluegrass,” he said.
Their newest album is a definite departure from the boundaries of genre. The banjo and the fiddle feature heavily in the composition but the band expanded the traditional acoustic repertoire to include an electric guitar, a keyboard and a drum set—instruments that are more often associated with rock and roll than bluegrass. The result is an album that feels more modern than some of its contemporaries. Which is to say they wouldn’t look out of place in a hip Brooklyn neighborhood.
It can sometimes feel like a crooning for a bygone America. But at other times is seems like a relevant reminder of the necessity of simplicity. For a moment I put away my cynicism and my phone and was reminded of it. On Sunday night, I believe, everyone at Freight and Salvage was reminded too.