The Dustbowl Revival makes music for dancing barefoot on a porch in New Orleans. Or for swinging back gin after gin in an underground speakeasy.
Imagine a string band meets a brass band and expertly mixes gospel, bluegrass, swing and blues. Some call it “hillbilly jazz.” Frontman Zach Lupetin calls it the “Americana kitchen sink,” equipped with the look and feel of the 1930s – suspenders, bowties, newsboy caps and so forth.
“Many vintage stores have been manhandled by us,” Lupetin said.
Midtown’s thrift shops should brace themselves – the Venice outfit comes to Sacramento for the first time Thursday at Harlow’s.
Lupetin, 28, formed The Dustbowl Revival about five years ago as a collective – as many as 20 musicians at once ranging in age from 20 to 40. Seven members, the core group, play trumpet, trombone, bass, drums, guitar and mandolin, but there’s always the potential for a clarinet, fiddle, banjo, washboard or kazoo, too.
The “collective” aspect means that folks can float in and out of the band, and in and out of Los Angeles, while they maintain other projects. And it means there’s plenty of leeway in the live rotation. “If we get a gig last minute, we can make it happen, and the quality of the musicianship never goes down,” Lupetin said.
But it also creates a constantly developing sound. With so many musicians, songs might be learned, or written, just hours before performances.
“We’re definitely not that band with a rehearsal space that practices once a week,” Lupetin said. “I like to keep it fresh.”
Really fresh. Most of Dustbowl’s high-energy, foot-stompin’ songs are improvisational. “It’s often just a chord structure, and then people make their own parts as the song evolves,” Lupetin said. “A lot of times I don’t tell the horn players what to play. They’re the horn players – they know better than me.”
Lupetin estimates about 100 Dustbowl Revival songs are swirling around, although some aren’t played for months at a time. The band has released three studio albums, the most recent last spring’s “Carry Me Home.” In December, Dustbowl also released four new songs from a Daytrotter session, recorded live on reel-to-reel tape. The songs are free to stream on both the Daytrotter and Dustbowl Revival websites.
In LA Weekly’s Best of 2013 special issue, the Best Live Band award went to Dustbowl Revival. The group’s “upbeat, old-school, All-American sonic safaris exemplify everything shows should be: hot, spontaneous, engaging, and best of all, a pleasure to hear,” according to the alt-weekly.
And maybe that’s partially because Dustbowl isn’t just about the music – live performances evoke a time period for which, it seems, Americans hold serious nostalgia.
In L.A. and many other major American cities, dimly lit speakeasies, old-timey restaurants and bars with a gypsy vibe and stiff cocktails are all the rage. “In the last few years, the roots-centric community in L.A. has blossomed,” Lupetin said. “I don’t really know why, but it’s happened.”
But he can guess.
“I think a lot of stuff from the ’20s, ’30s or even ’40s is classic and never goes out of style,” he said. “And I think more people now are about authentic American music instead of just whatever is cool at the moment.”
He pointed to a source of inspiration for himself and other young, similar musicians: the 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” by Joel and Ethan Coen, with a soundtrack of songs that have been around for decades, by legends such as Ralph Stanley and Harry McClintock.
“There’s a reason why these songs never die,” Lupetin said. “It’s in the bloodstream.”
And now this brand of roots music is approaching the mainstream – think Old Crow Medicine Show, Rebirth Brass Band, but also folk-rock hit bands such as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. They sell out arenas, headline major music festivals and top pop charts while employing banjos, accordions and fiddles.
“They’re touching some chord that goes back in time, and bringing that to a much larger audience,” Lupetin said. “Whether or not you like those bands, I think they help smaller bands like us peak people’s interests.”