“It’s kind of like traveling in a circus,” said singer and guitarist Zach Lupetin to Tahoe Onstage during a soundcheck of his manic roots-music band, the Dustbowl Revival. After seeing this colorful band live and giving its fantastic new album “With A Lampshade On” a listen, you would have to come to a similar conclusion.
When the eight-piece posse from Los Angeles gathers in front of a ravenous crowd, it hits the stage with a rowdy spirit looking to take its audiences on an adventure through myriad American roots music styles that have been shocked with a modern jolt of flair and rock and roll. It has developed an avid following from crowds that want to shake their tail-feathers to music that taps into the traditions of jazz troubadours, Prohibition-era-folksters and swinging bluesman.
“I think we’re bringing a joyful reinterpretation of music from another time and bringing it to a modern audience, which can sometimes be offensive to some purists. There are people who go ‘Look if you’re going to cover a Willie Armstrong-type song, I really feel connected to how he did it, how dare you (laughs) put this rock and roll inflection on it.’ I think people are more and more open minded about what roots music is. It’s everything that comes from the American creative mind,” Lupetin said.
Just as a carnival’s company of performers combine all sorts of spectacles into one main event, from feats of strength by burly men to daring acrobatics on the trapeze, the Dustbowl Revival is made up of a number of crack performers who bring all sorts of traditional styles to the big top. Lupetin is joined by Liz Beebe on vocals/washboard/ukulele, Daniel Mark on mandolin, Connor Vance on fiddle, Matt Rubin on trumpet, Ulf Bjorlin on trombone, James Klopfleisch on bass and Joshlyn Heffernan on drums. Together they create a unique, genre-mashing dance-party night after night, complete with fiddle breakdowns, brass explosions and call-and-response crowd participation.
“It’s a kitchen sink approach,” Lupetin said. “I love Cuban music as much as I love Chicago blues. Why can’t we put them together in one place if you have a big band? Not maybe big band in like the 1930s where they had 30 people, but we have the unique capacity to open up and play different styles of music comfortably, which not a lot of people can do.”
On the band’s new album, “With A Lampshade On,” the band tackles New Orleans-style jazz with pizazz (“Ain’t My Fault”), add bounce to string band melodies (“Never Had To Go”) and more often than not are laying down something not quite heard before, but feels classic all the same (“Feels Good”). But the band doesn’t like to necessarily separate its musical components and influences into different corners and thrives when all meet somewhere in the middle for the party.
“I think we called the album ‘With A Lampshade On’ partially because that song is everything we do in the band swirled up into one,” Lupetin said. “It’s a hoedown with a brass band going full speed over a cliff. I think that song definitely symbolizes how we’ve gelled stylistically into our own sound.”
In thinking about recording its new album, Lupetin and the band recognized they really fire on all cylinders in front of a crowd, where they can feed off the thrill of an audience like a lion tamer gaining courage from a crowd before he throws his head into the jaws of the beast. The majority of the album is made up of tracks recorded from shows at the Troubador in Los Angeles and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, but also includes three tracks recorded live in the studio.
“We’ve been approached by people who have been following us for years about finally putting an album out that would be representative of what they would see in a live show, this energy and fun,” Lupetin said. “A lot of the times in a studio you are faking that, so we were able to record the live stuff in a way that retained the warm sound of a studio, but have it be with the energy of a crowd lifting us up a little bit higher. The three songs we did in the studio were recorded with us all playing, with just a little more control. We still wanted to have that energy of us playing at the same time with that eye contact and electricity that you get with everyone.”
It was gamble to include both live and studio tracks, which can sometimes feel disjointed, but the songs on “With A Lampshade On” fit together as a cohesive unit. Furthermore, the album should not be construed as a live effort. While most live albums just rehash previously recorded songs into a live setting, the new album consists of 14 new songs from the band that captures it stomping away with more spirit and tenacity than its previous three efforts.
“We were trying to get the best version of ourselves on tape,” Lupetin said.
With a heavy touring schedule through October in support of the new album, the band is poised to give its audiences something new every night, rarely playing the same set twice. It has a solid and deep repertoire of songs from which to choose and every party deserves a different playlist to fly through the night.
“I try and bring our songs that are going to fit that environment the best,” Lupetin said. “So, like, if we’re playing in a barn, were going to bring a little bit more of that bluegrass, a little bit more of that string band stuff. If you’re in a theater, in a very hushed environment, you want to bring some of the more nuanced, quieter songs, with harmonies … I like to give people a tour of the Dustbowl experience if I can and let the chips fall as they may.”
The Dustbowl Revival is putting its own spin on the timeless traditions of the American musical canon that is striking a joyous connection with audiences everywhere. Run, don’t walk, to the big tent when this circus comes to town.
Related story: “With a Lampshade on” album review. LINK