Dustbowl Revival:
playing in the shadows

Zach Lupetin, in a van full of chattering musicians, is leaving New York on the road to Maine before heading back south for a show in Lancaster, Pa.

A Chicago native who studied film in Michigan before moving to California, Lupetin fronts the Dustbowl Revival, an eclectic band that draws its style from a broad musical geography. And the band loves to perform in front of a crowd.

"It should be something they really remember," Lupetin says. "There's definitely a theatrical spectacle to our show. ... We hope people let loose and enjoy the music."

The Dustbowl Revival, in its press materials, describes itself as a musical collective "that merges old-school bluegrass, gospel, swamp blues and the hot swing of New Orleans to form a spicy roots cocktail."

Imagine, the band's website suggests, "Old Crow Medicine Show teaming up with Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, or Bob Dylan and The Band jamming with Benny Goodman and his orchestra in 1938. It's infectious, joyous music -- a youthful take on time-worn American traditions." Voted "Best Live Band in LA" by The LA Weekly, they were described by the Boston Globe as evoking "a Depression-era sensibility redolent of John Steinbeck, and the spirit-raising gospel of the American South."

They play in the shadows where jazz, blues and bluegrass overlap -- a mashup of styles that the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, both icons in their own right, are also exploring.

"The combination of swing and bluegrass is something not a lot of people are doing," Lupetin says. "People don't often experience a lot of different genres at one time.

"But it evolved more slowly than that," he adds. "It really comes down to the songs. The songs are forces of nature that dictate their own instrumentation."

Dustbowl Revival began as a folk-oriented band, he says. "Then we added a trombone and a drum. So I started writing more swing. ... It's hard for me to really determine what our path is. It's a way to tell a story with a set of tools around you."

Sometimes, those tools include well-wrung traditional pieces, which Lupetin -- the band's songwriter -- expands and embellishes. Their new album, for instance, draws on old chestnuts including "Soldier's Joy," "John the Revelator" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

"Sometimes you're just singing along to a song, and you start to wonder what if it had a different story," Lupetin says. "And sometimes you just hear something that sticks with you. I'm not sure where some of those songs came from."

He remembers his mother singing "Swing Low" when he was a youngster. "I didn't really even know what it was about," he says. "But I started looking into all the different versions. It can be a joyful song. It can almost be a funeral song. That's often what makes American music -- different versions of a story."

Lupetin, who grew up playing classical violin, was exposed by his father to a variety of early blues and classic rock at an early age.

"Once you start listening to the Beatles and the Stones, Bruce Springsteen and the like, you start looking to see who inspired them," he says. "That naturally leads to Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe, among others."

He formed his first band while in eighth grade, picked up the electric bass, then taught himself guitar in college. "I have a weird fingerpicking style," he says. "I don't actually know how to play with a pick."

But being in a band came naturally to him, Lupetin says. "I never wanted to be a solo artist. I always wanted a big crew around me, sharing the joy of early American music."

In fact, he says, Dustbowl Revival got its start because of a Craigslist ad he placed when he moved to L.A. in 2007.

"I didn't know a lot of people yet who were fellow musicians," he explains. "So I put up a tongue-in-cheek ad for people into the music of Bob Dylan and Benny Goodman. ... There are still people in this group from that first ad. And, once you start playing, people know people and start recommending each other."

The band is currently eight members strong, with a variety of musical guests coming and going as needed. "Just fitting them all in the van can be a challenge," Lupetin says.

"Actually, it's not as hard as you think. For me, it's like a baseball team. You have your A lineup, then you have guys who can come in for emergencies, you have guys who can fill out whatever you need," he says. "Sometimes we'll add in clarinet, banjo, organ -- stuff to make it a little different every time."

Besides Lupetin, who sings and plays guitar -- among other instruments as the mood strikes -- Dustbowl Revival is Liz Beebe on vocals and washboard, Daniel Mark on mandolin, Connor Vance on fiddle, Matt Rubin on trumpet, Ulf Bjorlin on trombone, Josh Heffernan on drums and Josiah Mory on bass.

Lupetin isn't always sure where his musical journey will take him next.

"There's music I can appreciate but I don't necessarily understand," he says. "For instance, I don't understand hip-hop -- yet."

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

19 July 2014

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