Spud Puppies' new album reflects democratic spirit

Scott Hall

The Spud Puppies will perform tunes from their new album 'Off the Leash' on Friday at the Music Mill, opening for progressive bluegrass icons Peter Rowan and Tony Rice.

The Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet with special guests The Spud Puppies

Music Mill

Friday, Feb. 10, 9 p.m. (Doors 8 p.m.)

$18 in advance, $20 day of show

It sounds like a concept for reality TV: What happens when eight musicians try to work together and share the spotlight while boiling down a couple centuries' worth of folk and pop music into a fresh, cohesive sound?

Alas, the backstage scenes might make for dull viewing on VH1's The Spud Puppies. These local music veterans pride themselves on easy friendship and consensual rule, which is how they find room in one band - and on their new sophomore album - for five in-house songwriters, several instrumental soloists and, oh, maybe three to five singers.

Once you're past 40 and gainfully employed, as most of the Spud Puppies are, it's easier to put egos and star trips aside and focus on the music.

"There are no political issues in this band," says guitarist-vocalist Greg Ziesemer, the ad hoc leader - perhaps "hub" would be more accurate - of the large, mostly acoustic roots ensemble. "There's a deep love and a mutual respect that is the undercurrent of the band, and it's not a hippie love thing."

They should know. The band's senior members have been playing since the '70s heyday of the Hummingbird nightclub. Other members cut their teeth in the regional jam-band scene of the '80s and '90s, in Ziesemer's case as a founding member of the Dead-inspired Spirtles and later with the Earthbones and Jam Sammich.

"I kind of got lost in a time capsule for a while," the native Eastsider concedes with a grin.

A lingering attachment to Jerry Garcia's bluegrass forays is evident in the Pups' sound, but the blazing solos of mandolinist Boyd Thaxton, banjoist Kevin Donnelly (aka, Delmar Lincoln) and guitarist Dave Bigley are succinct and surgically executed. The mere presence of drummer Gary Rakow and percussionist Tim Williams would confuse purists at the Bean Blossom festival.

And as evidenced on their second independent CD, Off the Leash, the "newgrass" leanings are just a launching point to explore Southern folk music's European roots and its continuing legacy in country and rock, within the context of tight arrangements.

"I've done the jam band thing for so long, I kind of want to distance myself from that," Ziesemer says. "I think we're more about songwriting. Instrumental improvisation is only a part of it. It's like a conversation rather than an extended jam."

See for yourself Friday when the band opens for progressive bluegrass icons Peter Rowan and Tony Rice at the Music Mill.

Off the Leash, recorded at Airtime Studios in Bloomington and soon to be available at CDBaby.com, is a 12-song collection anchored by Ziesemer's four originals. The opening cut, "This Old Caboose," stakes out the band's center of gravity nicely with its train metaphor and round-the-horn solos on mandolin, banjo and guitar. Later, his "Good Seeds" lays down an Arlo Guthrie/'70s folk vibe and showcases a gift for plainspoken poetry and time-honored imagery:

It's a classic contradiction, what you want and what you need

Things we take for granted, things for which we bleed

Some are built to go the distance, and others just for speed ...

There's a Garden of Eden hidden here among the weeds

And I'm bound to reap the harvest if I start with good seeds

Another chunk of solid material comes courtesy of the Pups' newest member, bassist-vocalist Gary Wasson, formerly of the like-minded band Sindacato. Wasson and his voice bring a style more akin to classic country, represented on the album by his song "5500 Days" and a cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)."

Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter/arranger Garry Bole seems to have the best handle on the band's trans-Atlantic influences, with his accordion stylings and vaguely Celtic triple-meter rhythms. His instrumental "The Following Sea" begins with the swelling majesty of a sea chantey and abruptly shifts into a bluesy piano vamp. "Dutch's Creole Waltz/Zapateado" makes a similarly interesting transition, like a Gulf Coast journey from Cajun to Tex-Mex.

"He's pushing the envelope more than anybody, stylistically," Ziesemer says of Bole. "That's what he brings to the band, that vision."

Donnelly and his banjo contribute another traditional-style instrumental, the aptly titled "Robert Emmet's Jig." Guitarist Bigley, best known for his electric lead work, proves he can rock the banjo on his whimsical country ditty "Jake's Claw."

Vocal harmonies on "Good Seeds" and two other cuts are provided by Kriss Luckett, a sort of "fifth Beatle" friend of the band who often joins them on stage. She and Ziesemer also perform frequently as a duo, a side project in which he takes increasing pride, citing their growing repertoire and "almost genetic" vocal blend.

One upcoming gig for the pair is March 29 in Richmond, a 200th anniversary celebration for the National Road, better known around here as U.S. 40. A Ziesemer tune titled "National Road" from the Pups' 2004 debut Pick of the Litter has been licensed by the Indiana National Road Association, a group dedicated to preserving the history of the nation's first federal interstate highway. The relationship is a treat for Ziesemer, who became a history buff through his day job as an antique furniture restorer for clients that include museums and historical sites.

The show also reflects the band's continuing emergence from smoky pubs to all-ages public events and festivals, a circuit suited to the music's multigenerational appeal. The 2006 schedule already includes gigs for Indy Parks and Carmel's Cool Creek Concerts series. Given the members' work and family commitments, national touring is not in the cards for the Spud Puppies, so they have to make the most of regional opportunities.

"We're doing a lot of family-friendly, higher profile shows," Ziesemer says. "It's all about hitting a broad audience."

Ziesemer also uses his duo and solo appearances to promote the Spud Puppies. Between the three formats, he logged 85 shows last year, a substantial schedule for a part-time musician.

"Some people would argue that maybe I over-saturate, but at least I'm getting the music out there," he says.

One thing he's not trying to do, he insists, is leave his bandmates behind. The positive chemistry the Pups enjoy is too rare to give up.

"Everybody's fulfilled," Ziesemer says. "I hope we all grow old together and play music together until we die."

Scott Hall writes about music and culture at www.byrdlandstudios.com.


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