Labor of love

The acronym may be borrowed, but the music of AVAS — the Acoustic Vibration Appreciation Society — is some of the freshest newgrass to hit the scene in years. AVAS is made up of members of several hot local groups, and their self-titled debut CD (Little King, 2000) is proof that they merit recognition among the young lions.

“We’re all influenced by progressive acoustic music on one regard, but this group’s music is completely out of our heads, stuff that just comes to us,” says mandolinist Jason Krekel. “It’s definitely different than the other projects that we’re involved in.”

AVAS was actually the name of a student-sponsored club at the Nashville high school attended by Krekel, flutist Gaines Post and bassist Jay Sanders. “That was the first outlet that we had to play in front of people. You could just play anything you wanted, and put on two performances a semester, so we’ve grown up together that way.” Sanders went on to study music at UT-Knoxville under Jerry Coker, and Krekel moved to Boone, N.C., where he started jamming with violinist Cailin Campbell (originally from Knoxville) and banjo player Andy Pond. With the eventual addition of Sanders, they helped start the wildly popular multimedia extravaganza Snake Oil Medicine Show.

Pond is still part of Snake Oil, while Sanders moved on to the bluegrass/pop outfit Acoustic Syndicate; Krekel can now be heard in the Larry Keel Experience, a flashy bluegrass band.

“Larry’s an amazing, fast picker, so I’m learning a lot from bluegrass. But none of these bands can satisfy what AVAS is satisfying. This is our personal music — we’re not playing for anybody else. We’re supporting each other’s songs, and we’re trying to stretch out as far as we possibly can.”

Krekel’s father is a friend of Newgrass Revival co-founder Sam Bush, and the young mandolinist learned a lot from that distinctive musician. “That was an exciting thing. I consider him the rhythm master,” Krekel reveals. He started playing mandolin after meeting fiddler Cailin Campbell and being force-fed Stephane Grappelli’s music for a night. “That pretty much changed my life,” Krekel admits. “I had been playing guitar and percussion up to that point, but I really needed to do something different. Cailin was playing Thelonious Monk tunes on the mandolin, and I started having this weird fascination with the instrument. I play the fiddle as well, but mandolin is definitely my main instrument. My mandolin influences were mostly all of the swing players. Jethro Burns was one of my favorite mandolin players. Frank Wakefield is an oddball mandolin player who goes out on the edge, and Mike Marshall is another who crosses over between styles.

“I listened to a lot of jazz when I was in Boone,” he continues. “We would transcribe Charlie Parker tunes onto the mandolin, learning all kinds of different approaches. I didn’t want to be stuck as a bluegrass player. That’s one way to play, but you can do just about anything you want on the instrument. If you have a banjo and a mandolin, they automatically call you a bluegrass band, but there are a lot of musicians out there doing other things with those instruments. We do play bluegrass, don’t get me wrong. I love it, and I love old-time music too. I probably listen to as much old-time music as I do jazz, and world music as well.”

According to Krekel, the members of AVAS have aimed to record this project for several years. “We’ve been playing these songs forever,” he says. “One night after a Larry Keel gig, Andy and Cailin and I were in a hotel room picking in front of some people. Zack Newton, who works for Bela Fleck, was there, and he gave us a lot of positive input. He said, ‘Man, you guys ought to do something with that.'” A friend of the band, Steve Metcalf, had started the grassroots record company Little King, and offered to produce their project on his label. The CD was recorded at a friend’s house in Kenilworth by the portable recording team known as Collapseable Studios. “We wanted a strong Asheville vibe. We’re trying to capture that whole mountain feeling,” says Krekel, the group’s senior member at age 27. Sax player Jeremy Saunders, fiddler Michael McCandless and Blue Rags guitarist Woody make guest appearances on the recording.

Never given to limiting its range, AVAS has been influenced lately by the acoustic sounds of the Scandinavian record company Northside, in particular a Swedish band called Vesan. “We have a tune on the album dedicated to them, called ‘Terrestrial Skyview.’ That one has a lot of influence from the Scandinavian, Nordic sound. There’s a tune on there that’s very Bill Frisell-esque, written by Jeremy. I have a tune that was very influenced by Mahavishnu Orchestra, called ‘Mahavishnu-ing,’ and a lot of Andy’s tunes are influenced heavily by Bela Fleck. We have a tune on there called ‘The Grog Pond,’ which is pretty much influenced by Raymond Scott, the composer of a lot of the music used with the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Jay wrote that six or seven years ago, and it was such a hard tune that we never played it out until we recorded it. So it’s cool to see the evolution of these things. We birth them in our heads, and they grow up to be big mama or daddy tunes. It’s a cool thing.”

The air up there

Before up-and-coming newgrassers AVAS rattle the late-night Grey Eagle stage on March 4, a separate early show will feature a near-veteran roots musician: Jeff Holmes of The Floating Men, who’s currently celebrating 10 years of trying to push the limits of the Nashville sound, via a country-rock-topped concoction of folk, ska, swing and funk. The group’s latest CD, Lemon Pie (Shade, 1999), is another well-executed, slightly odd slice of Music City from Holmes, bassist Scot Evans, drummer Jeff Bishop, and a very polished supporting cast.

“Every song is different,” Holmes explained in a brief interview. “I write early in the morning, and the window is pretty short before I start spinning my wheels. Some of them I write in 15 minutes, and some of them lay around for 10 years. It’s still trial and error, after all these years. I bring in the song itself, and everybody else contributes their own part of the arrangement. Usually, if we have to play it more than three times before the arrangement is solid, I’ve written a bad song, because these guys are great players.”

Lemon Pie guest stars include sax ace Jeff Coffin, pianist Jerry Dale McFadden, guitarist Chris Cottros and engineer Gene Eichelberger. “Everybody wants to play with Floating Men,” declares Holmes. “There are worse positions to be in, I guess. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for people to spread their wings here in town, because the country-music industry is so strong. We represent one of the more progressive groups in town, and players love to have the chance to do something besides the same country licks and things.

“We used to play almost exclusively acoustic, but we’ve broadened our horizons, and now we don’t confine ourselves to any one set instrumentation,” he explains.

As with their music, it’s quite difficult to define Floating Men’s audience: “There are no demographic boundaries. We have all sorts of people — all ages, all interests, all backgrounds. That can be problematic for big music-industry machines, but for us, in an indie situation, it’s not. It’s actually opened a lot of doors, rather than closed them.”

What can fans expect of a Holmes solo performance? “It’s a lot more free-form, less of a big rock show,” he says. “I just take my time, and spend time with the songs and spend time with the audience. I try to make everybody feel as comfortable as they can. It’s more like a party that I just happen to be in the middle of. I don’t plan anything. I walk onstage without a set list or anything, and just respond to what the audience feeds me. I don’t usually take requests for specific songs — I just take the attitude that the audience is giving me.”

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