From the outset, Wood & Steel by The Bushels is a toe-tapper. Actually, it’s a full-on dance-with-the-nearest-stranger-and-buy-a-round-for-the-whole-bar kind of mood setter.
“Cheap Beer Bar Brand Blues” is fun and fast-paced, a good opener thanks to the energy and the blue-collar fist-pumping theme. “I’m saving here all week just to make it to tonight / the only reason I got money’s cause I hide it from my wife / I got all these problems tell me what else can I do? / I got the cheap beer bar brand blues.” But it also makes the listener wonder if that’s what The Bushels are. Not a cheap bar brand band, but heavy on the kitsch and light on the heft.
In truth — and I’ve seen the band live — the Charleston-based acoustic quartet (there’s a local connection, wait for it) is skilled and tight and fun. According to reports from the Bushels’ set at Macon, Georgia’s Bragg Jam this summer, the group (who has been tapped by chef Tyler Forence to perform live at his Lowcountry Celebration, and who held a dual-CD release party with buddies Truth & Salvage Company) has a formidable stage presence and knows how to work a crowd. But the band, at least on Wood & Steel, seems divided on whether it wants to amuse the tourists with a clever-if-hokey mix of favorites and easily-digestable originals, or if they want to kick asses, take names and launch this project to the next level.
“Kon Lets Dance” is a Grisman/Garcia-inspired stomp. Tasteful, light-fingered picking meets engaging lyrics. “Dust Me Off” uses a similar formula — it’s all banjo licks and mandolin riffs that compliment a hooky/nostaligic chorus. These tracks are actually so well crafted that their little foibles — a cliche here and there — are more disappointing than they would be in lesser songs.
“Someday,” the album’s slow-dance, is actually the biggest offender with its cloying refrain which includes the unfortunate line, “Your smell, your touch, oh I miss it all so much.” Scent might have been a better choice — few women would be charmed by the reference, no matter how romantically-intentioned, to odor. On the other hand, the loping two-step rhythm and the lithe banjo are enough to make this a winning instrumental.
The stand out on Wood & Steel is easily “Aint Gon Be Troubled,” a bluesy burner with a lanky beat, spare, lonesome harmonica, sweet harmonies by guest Crystal Brown-Gibson set against grungy blues guitar and, best of all, the smoke-and-whisky vocal of mandolin player/songwriter Mal Jones.
Some readers may remember Jones from the days of R&B outfit Mavis playing at Tressa’s — we’re talking 2000 here — when Jones would occasionally sit in on a Tom Waits cover. He’s also the writer of “Sweet T,” a winsome roots tune picked up by Sweet Tea Vodka. Smart company. Jones’ skillful writing and distinctive voice mark him for a front man in a band where he often takes a back seat. Could the future hold a different project for Jones? If so, he’s certainly got the chops.
But in the meantime, the Bushels have made significant strides since their 2009 debut EP and they’re fast attracting a fan base both in their home town and around the region. Could be they’ll book at gig at MoDaddy’s before too long: That bar already serves Sweet Tea Vodka so it seems logical next step. In the meantime, give Wood & Steel a listen: It has plenty of high points to recommend it and, for a band well on the way to reaching its stride, the Bushels sure know how to create a celebratory mood.