Studying Strangefolk

Attention, all you living-room jam musicians: Case up your guitars, give your congas a rest, and pay heed to a tutorial from a college-town jam band that’s hit the big time.

Burlington, Vt.’s Strangefolk — signed last year by the prestigious Mammoth Records (who also handle the Squirrel Nut Zippers) — are playing to packed houses across the country, riding the current of their second CD, the critically acclaimed Weightless in Water (Mammoth 1998).

From coast to coast, in Jerry’s ample wake, free-form, improvisational jam-rock bands are springing up to keep the groove alive. The jam genre has been perfected by such bands as The Mother Hips, Ekoostic Hookah, Widespread Panic and, of course, Phish (that other band from Burlington). But while the neo-hippie caravan still has plenty of live music to follow, it might just find something fresh in Strangefolk: Since their campus-coffeehouse days, this quartet has crafted “a whole unorthodox blend of acoustic and electric styles,” as lead singer Reid Genauer puts it.

In a recent phone interview, Genauer offered a lesson plan for would-be jam giants (it goes without saying that a healthy dose of musical talent is a key precursor to all the steps that follow).

First of all, counsels the singer, find your trademark. Having written songs since high school, Genauer brought his earnest, folky songwriting talents to the table and formed a duo with guitarist Jon Tafton. Playing dual-hybrid acoustic guitars replete with bizarre electronic enhancements, Genauer sang over the distortion and echo — thus generating a rather odd version of folk music: strange folk, if you will. Since then, the addition of Erick Glockler on bass and Luke Smith on drums has grounded the group in something closer to a classic rock ‘n’ roll tradition. But the experimentation continues in the plaintive sounds of pedal-steel guitar on tracks like Weightless in Water’s “Whatever” and “Sad,” and the twang of a bluegrass banjo on “Otis.”

The second step in creating a successful jam band, says Genauer, is to “draw up a game plan.” After their University of Vermont class graduated, the bottom fell out of Strangefolk’s fan base. But while many of their school chums sought work on Wall Street, Strangefolk hunkered down and talked music. “We set goals — such as making a living off touring, developing a relationship with local radio stations and arts papers, and recording an album,” Genauer.remembers. Slowly, the band broke into bigger and bigger venues. And, staying true to its grassroots approach, Strangefolk cultivated a homegrown management team and persistently hawked their own CDs — the self-released Lore (1995) and Weightless in Water, which sold 20,000 copies via the band’s own hard work before it turned heads at Mammoth. “We thought if people [in general] liked it, eventually record labels [would] come to us,” Genauer told the Los Angeles Times.

Strangefolk offers a simple credo — “get to work” — as the critical third step. Even with a grueling touring schedule that often encompasses 150 shows a year, Strangefolk makes their back-porch-style, feel-good music look easy. Whether warming up Weir/Wasserman fans at a Ratdog show, or entertaining their own fans with a gloriously extended instrumental, Strangefolk always gives 100 percent (the band boasts a repertoire of some 70 tunes, notes Genauer). “Some nights you walk off [the stage] thinking, ‘I’m the king,’ and other nights you think, ‘I should get a job selling insurance,'” he admits about the roller-coaster ride of touring. But exhaustion , confides Genauer, can actually be an unexpected boon to the road-weary musician: “It’s like a drug-induced state. … Sometimes, you play the best show of the week.”

Finally, if you want to rule the jam-band world, never, ever lose sight of your friends. When Strangefolk first hit the road, they usually played only where they had friends or relatives. “We’d play for friends, and they’d bring some of their friends … [and] then [the] distant friends … became fans of the band,” guitarist Tafton explained to one reporter, about the ripple effect that led to their success.

And, as Strangefolk outgrew its regional neighborhood, the band was pleased to see familiar faces wherever they went — “any night, anywhere in the country,” Genauer says happily.

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