Combining elements of New Orleans jazz and Appalachian bluegrass, Venice-based band The Dustbowl Revival seems to come out of another era. But the band competently and inspiringly brings vitality to genres decades older than its members.
Made up at times of anywhere from five to 15 members, the acoustic collective was put together by Zach Lupetin, who spoke to us about the act. Its name comes from Lupetin's move to L.A. from Michigan five years ago in search of prosperity. “It's this idea that you come to California to make something of yourself, where it's like this promised land,” he says.
Upon his arrival he put up a Craigslist ad looking for musicians. “[It] said 'Do you play any one of these 16 instruments? Do you like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, and… Bruce Springsteen?'” It worked, and he's been playing music with the core crew the ad attracted ever since, with an assortment of added players at each show.
Dustbowl Revival fuses many styles of roots music, including folk, bluegrass, the blues, jazz, Dixieland, Americana, and gospel. It sounds a bit counterintuitive to smoothly combine bluegrass with the brazen brass of New Orleans jazz and the spiritual melisma of gospel, but they pull it off. Their latest work, Holy Ghost Station, floats between frenetic bluegrass banjo rhythms to funky horn arrangements. Lupetin calls it “funk grass.” (Not to be confused with Gangstagrass.)
Dustbowl keeps their live shows earthy as well. “We never have a set list,” he says. “I really like feeling out the vibe… usually in my mind, as I'm playing, I hear the song that's coming next. And I trust the band enough where I'll literally just start the next song.”
But how do they know what to rehearse, then?
He raises his eyebrows. “That's another funny thing about this band. The full band is upward of 10 people, so it's very hard to get everybody in the same room… we rehearse on stage during the show.”
Indeed, at a typical performance they squeeze 11 or so people on stage: Lupetin on guitar, vocals and harmonica; another guitarist; a mandolin player; a female vocalist; a drummer; a fiddle player; a double bassist; a pianist; a trumpet player; a trombonist; and a flutist who doubles as a saxophonist who triples as a clarinetist. Lupetin yells what songs to transition into and when to hit a new rhythm. It's all very exciting to watch, like improv comedy without the awkward jokes.
Lupetin says that the band is diverse in its expression. “Sometimes certain publications view us as a novelty act, and a lot of people think we're playing old people music, but it doesn't have to be that… I would say roots music is alive and well. We're curating an old sound into a new sound.”