Strangers in a strange land

Groove rock. Jam rock. Noodle rock.

If pressed, Strangefolk lead singer/songwriter Reid Grenauer will admit dissatisfaction with all of those labels, deconstructing them with so much intelligence and good grace that it’s hard to argue. And though Strangefolk and the oft-lauded, oft-reviled king of modern noodle bands, Phish, do hail from the same hometown — Burlington, Vt. — the soft-spoken Grenauer sees no connection, beyond the obvious.

“Aside from geography and genre,” he insists, “we don’t have that much in common. As Strangefolk continues to grow and mature as a band, we’re becoming even more like ourselves. For better or worse, our successes will be Strangefolk successes, and our failures will be Strangefolk failures. That’s the way we want it.”

Truth be told, Strangefolk members (besides Grenauer, they include Luke Smith on drums, Erik Glockler on bass and John Trafton on lead guitar) don’t really seem to mind being known as Burlington’s other groove band. It turns out that they’re four warm, well-adjusted guys, and jumping on a bandwagon appears to be the farthest thing from their minds. It’s all too easy for writers and music purists to criticize the groove-rock genre, but even with the requisite emphasis on extended soloing (usually at the expense of the song), the practitioners of “jam-itis” have often been the very bands who define the state of modern rock — mostly by being the exception that proves the rule.

The model for these iconoclastic upstarts is, of course, the Grateful Dead — who, for all their excesses, made some damn fine music. Strangefolk are ably following in the Dead’s footsteps, self-releasing two CDs which have done extraordinarily well, considering that they were released on the band’s own label and received virtually no airplay.

All of which, Grenauer points out, only adds to the band’s mystique. “Our crowds usually enjoy a certain element of culture, of a communal experience,” he observes. “This music isn’t well-known from the radio, so the people who do know the music share a sense of something undiscovered. There’s a sense of empowerment. It’s not chosen for you by MTV or some other mass media.”

So what’s the big deal? Well, first off, the playing is excellent. Trafton’s bright, lyrical guitar never veers into self-congratulation, and rhythmically, the band is as tight as Saturday-afternoon traffic on Tunnel Road. More importantly, their songs are undeniably strong, with a firm melodic sense and lyrics that straddle the line between good-natured, laid-back aphorisms and mysterious, stoner alchemy. The songs are so sturdy, in fact, that I have to ask: If you can carry the material so well, why do the improvisation thing in the first place?

“It’s not a conscious thing,” Grenauer says. “Playing that way is very natural for us. And we think it’s good for the audience, too. Why see a band again and again if they play the same set every night? [Improvisation] makes things more fun for us, also; there’s the element of the lyrics, there’s the element of the song, and then there’s the element of the unknown, which tends to keep things interesting. Right now, we have a catalog of about 60 or 70 songs, and it’s good to keep things mixed up.”

One of the ways the band mixes things up is by breaking the unspoken rule of most folkadelic bands, about whom it is routinely said, “Yeah, but you gotta see them live.” Strangefolk, on the other hand, consider themselves first and foremost a recording band. A close listen to their latest disc, the self-produced Weightless in Water, reveals a melange of the usual suspects (fat, funky bass; a Bob Weir-ish, “Look Ma, I’m singing!” vocal delivery) — but also a few less-expected elements: A rootsy Hammond B-3 hums in the foreground on a few tracks, and here and there, banjos and a weepy steel guitar lend a distinct down-home ambiance.

Strangefolk is clearly a band on the move. They’ve already conquered the groove-happy Northeast and the wide-open West (much of the group’s traditional fan base consists of Northeast college students who, upon graduation, move westward in search of spiritual freedom — and good skiing — so it’s not surprising that the band has those territories covered). And now, Strangefolk is looking to court some serious support south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But when I suggest that, maybe, the Southeast isn’t quite as “groovy” as the places they’re used to playing, Grenauer laughs — and politely disagrees.

“Actually, Asheville has a lot in common with Burlington,” he asserts. “You’d be surprised at the similarities. You’ve got the mountains. You’ve got the people who really love music. Don’t worry,” he tells me in a voice quiet with confidence, “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

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