Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 7, 2011

Calling All Bluegrass Fans (All 19 of you…)

Part of The Relentless Mules: Caleb Powers (left, mandolin) & Stephen Moller on resonator guitar

I stumbled upon a very good bunch of Ohio-based bluegrass players Monday nite at Duke’s in Rogers Park. The Relentless Mules are a relatively young but talented four-piece doing a variety of traditional music and a handful of originals (which they joked they had composed in the van on the way up here from Columbus).

The foursome play bass, mandolin, guitar, and resonator guitar (sometimes called a dobro… though I think technically there’s a difference). Bassist Chris Stevens holds down the bottom, while the other three trade singing duties, or blend their voices for some classic Appalachian harmonies.

The guitarist Daniel Phelps, in particular, has a strong bass voice that reminds me somewhat of another famous Dan, Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss’ stellar backup band, Union Station. Tyminski is Krauss’ guitarist, and also provided George Clooney with those great lead-singing pipes on the crucial Man of Constant Sorrow, in the Coen brothers’ 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou?

Thanks to that movie — along with Raising Sand, Krauss’ much ballyhooed Grammy-winning collaboration with Robert Plant and other Nashville greats (like string master Buddy Miller, now on tour with Plant again), bluegrass music has gotten a nice shot in the arm in the past decade or so. Plus, I think more discerning people are catching onto the hollow, poppy nature of  the standard Nashville product. So they’ve turned in greater numbers to the likes of Gillian Welch, or a number of  jam-band influenced younger groups (Nickel Creek?) who know their instruments and their music history forward and back again.

The  Relentless Mules are part of that history therefore, and proud of it. Mando player Caleb also makes music in several other bands, including one group with his father. And they apparently all show up to jam and teach each other the old songs on Tuesday nights at Dick’s Den, a club in Columbus. (Mule guitarist Dan drawled it out as “Dick’s Din” — I misheard him at first, though I thought the word “din” to be oddly appropriate as well.)

Among the songs I heard Monday was Crazy Creek by Tommy Jackson (from the ’30s, according to the personable and pleasantly goofy Caleb ). Later, the higher-voiced, serious-minded Stephen sang the above rousing rendition of 1966’s Big Spike Hammer by the Osborne Brothers. (No, not the Osmond Brothers, you doofus…) As an added bonus, they were able to accommodate my one serious request, with a more than adequate “faked” rendition of the 200+ year old classic Poor Wayfaring Stranger. Here’s most of it:

The little drama on the side was that this practically broke band (plus two girlfriends) had come to Chicago with no plans for where they would sleep while they’re here. (Oh to be young and adventurous…) I was sorely tempted to offer my family room couches, but my wife hates it when I bring home strays. I love the new “granola kids” as much as anyone, but it’s just not possible to help everyone we want to help, now is it? I did buy a CD, though. (Breakfast for one band member…)

“Can I set up my tent in your yard?” Caleb half-jokingly asked a friend from a Chicago band who had come to see the show. But it didn’t come down to that, as another patron from the neighborhood offered his domicile for the band’s lodging while they’re here. Let’s hear it for Chicago hospitality!

I’ll put some video (bad Blackberry-shot video) of their set over at YouTube if I can, and then drag it over here if possible. (Technical difficulties at the moment… no matter how much I learn, there’s always a snag that keeps me from technically achieving what I’m aiming at! )

Meanwhile, head on out to Duke’s Wednesday nite for some summer fun, and encourage dese youts –with an a eye on the past, and lightning fast fingers picking out a path toward the future on their strings.


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