Posted On: 03/31/2006
Bands come together at different times for different reasons. Chris Grabau knows that as well as anyone on the local scene. His longtime band, the country-rockin’ Stillwater, was a collection of college friends who actually broke well beyond the Saint Louis University campus and grabbed some nice opening slots while releasing a couple albums.
With the dissolution of that group, Grabau was a short-term member as a sideman to a few acts. He recorded with St. Louis expat Michael Friedman. He eventually joined a group called Waterloo but began writing songs in 2001 for a project that would become the group Magnolia Summer. That experience, which began in the studio and morphed to a live setting, led to the album “Levers and Pulleys” and, just as importantly, a standing band.
Joining Grabau, who was on vocals, mandolin and guitar, was a veteran group of players: keyboardist Mark Ray, guitarist John Horton, bassist Greg Lamb and drummer Aaron Zeveski. Like Grabau, most do time in other groups, but a unique chemistry developed within this lineup that kept them from collapsing under the weight of their other projects and responsibilities. It’s a mature, seasoned group playing a mature, accomplished brand of – for lack of an exact term – Americana.
“This band is one of those things,” Grabau said. “John has his commitment to the Bottle Rockets. Everybody’s got commitments with other bands. But as far as Magnolia Summer is concerned, we try to make it interesting. Rather than holding out for a perfect moment, we decided to keep plodding along. If one person can’t show up, we’ll retool to make it interesting. I’d hope you’d see that with each show, [it’s] a relatively different set. Ideally, we’ll have new songs or new arrangements every time we play.”
Grabau went further in praising his band mates and said, “What’s the business adage about surrounding yourself with people better than you? They’re just great musicians and people, all the way around. Mark, for sure, is a key part. I can play stuff on acoustic [guitar], and he comes up with really great ideas from there. The rest of the guys are consistently rock-solid. We’ve talked about this a little bit, but I think Horton’s a great rock guitar player, as inventive as they come. Aaron surprises me all the time with his playing, and Greg’s one of those guys who’s a very good songwriter in his own right, which is a plus, rather than having someone just thinking about his instrument. That’s a key distinction. They’re great guys to hang out with, to be in a band with and to have beers with. I hope the music reflects that. It’s a low-conflict band, a band of introverts, for the most part, which is funny.”
Although the band plays relatively few shows locally (about one a month), that pace could pick up in the short term, as the group is supporting the new release “From Driveways Lost View.” (The release date is May 16 but it’s available now at live shows.) The 11-song CD highlights Grabau’s songwriting, obviously, but also the assured contributions of the rest of the group. And whereas Grabau might have once pushed his voice past its comfort zone, his new songs and his band’s steadiness allow him to consistently stay in a comfortable pocket on this album.
“One thing about being with a core group of people is that everyone can have some input, some sound on the record,” Grabau said. “We approached this record with the idea that we’d capture that, and all the basic tracks were recorded live.
“I think one of the cool things about recording with these guys is a sense of seeking out, trying to be surprised,” Grabau added. “Always the best part of recording and playing with them is that something can become surprising, leading us in a different direction.”
Asked to describe some of the tracks on the album, Grabau laughed at his first comment that the record, “songwriting-wise, reflects a continual process of being caught in a relative disconnect.” Laughing again, he added, “How nondescriptive is that?”
Prompted further, he said, “I think that there’s an overall sense, at the surface, that it’s fairly negative. But, on the contrary, it’s built on a sort of hope that things work out at the end. There’s sort of this perpetual kind of conflict that you have entering adulthood, being in adulthood. Your time’s split between what you want to do and what you have to do. Your time’s spent with the reality of daily life: making a living, going to the grocery store, doing laundry. In the conceptual sense, there’s all of this ‘other’ floating in the ether. There are certain things the songs hint at – relationships, political affairs. This is a tug of war between the immediate and what you hope for in the long term.”
Lyrically, Grabau’s aesthetic might become clearer after a few listens. Musically, it engages right away. The new, more “insurgent” version of Magnolia Summer seems to suit the band quite well, indeed.
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