Album Review

Americana in DC, Stars by South Rail

 - Error

When my friends and I think or talk about the DC music scene, it is Ian MacKaye, Dischord Records, Fugazi, et al. that comprise the epicenter of our conversations. Hell, it’s no accident that I live three blocks from the Dischord House[1]. DC is a punk town – at least musically. Or it used to be a punk town; but, the bastardization of the DC punk scene is a story for another day, and probably for a punk site and not an Americana site. Regardless of the current state of DC’s music scene, I doubt many think of Americana music when DC is mentioned. However, South Rail, a DC area band, is beginning to add Americana to the musical lexicon of the DC area locals.

Jay Byrd, Lara Supan, and Ben Potok have been performing as South Rail for over two years, and in that short time have crafted a rich harmonic sound that falls comfortably in the land between Southern Rock and Americana. The band is staring down their first national tour, having honed their chops playing the DC area and throughout the Southeast in support of their 2013 self-titled debut EP. Interestingly, South Rail’s upcoming national tour was funded through Pledge Music, a crowd sourcing website that is usually utilized in order to raise funds for the production of albums. In fact, according to South Rail’s Pledge Music page, this is the “first ever fully crowd sourced and run tour.” The “run” part of that quote makes the whole enterprise even more intriguing – a pledge of $250 bought the privilege of choosing a tour stop for the band. For a mere $75, the pledger got to send the band to any national site that was within ten miles of the tour’s route. These are just two examples of some of the more interesting reward levels that I’ve seen from crowd sourcing efforts[2]. If the $250 level hadn’t already sold out, I’d encourage people to pony up and bring South Rail to a town near them. Regardless, I encourage everyone to check out the band’s tour dates, and make plans to see South Rail live. Although this is an album review, I can testify to the band’s prowess as a live act because my first introduction to the band was at one of their local concerts. 

A music site[3], for which I’m a staff writer, assigned me to cover the Magnificent Intentions Music Festival – a festival that highlighted over twenty DC area bands. On the closing night, I begrudgingly trudged to the venue located a mile from my apartment. I was tired and my middle-aged feet were mad at me for standing on them the entire weekend. Besides, I doubted that the closing night, a Sunday, would match the quality of music from the day before. On that front, I was mostly correct. What I wasn’t expecting was the surprise of being turned into a big fan of a DC area Americana band that I had never heard of before. As soon as South Rail finished their set, I made a beeline for the merchandise table, bought the band’s latest EP, mumbled something about cheap beer to a gracious Lara Supan, and awkwardly stumbled back into the crowd from which I, in all my new-found fanboy eagerness, had exploded from. I don’t think that I told Lara that I was a writer; I always feel badly when an indie band gives me their album - they probably need the money far more than I need my ego stoked by getting free cds. So, rest assured that I paid the full five dollars for this album; and, rest assured that I would have happily paid twice as much[4].

Stars, South Rail’s second EP, was produced by legendary musician and producer Don Was of Blue Note Records, and his influence is apparent. The album is tightly and well constructed with a dash of R&B that adds just enough sizzle to the earthiness of the band’s well-formed Americana sound. The album opens with “Be That Way Again,” an upbeat yet soulfully nostalgic ode to past love that highlights, directly off the bat, how beautifully the voices of Jay Byrd and Lara Supan move together. The second song, “On My Way,” demonstrates what contemporary country music should be. However, the highlight of Stars is “Wayfaring Stranger.” This Americana ballad incorporates all the best of Southern Rock and Gospel into a tight look at a big picture. The musicianship of the band is on full display in “Wayfaring Stranger – Jay Byrd’s guitar solos make me stop what I’m doing; and Supan’s voice has all the grit and guts of a farm girl and, improbably at the same time, all the velvety smoothness of a nightclub vixen. The final two tracks are not throw-away songs, and round off a beautifully executed album. I'm still marveling at how well-written the songs are. Songwriting often is the big chasm that indie bands have trouble crossing. I mean, I see a lot of indie bands that are merely good, and South Rail deserves, based on their musicianship and songwriting ability, to be sleeping in five star hotels while on tour.

My one complaint about Stars is that it’s an EP. I understand the economics of it, but that doesn’t leave me any less disappointed that I don’t get to listen to more great songs from South Rail. Don’t misunderstand, Stars is a more than worthy addition to any music library, and those who do add the album to their library will probably find that Stars will quickly make its way into frequent playing rotation. That being said, I will be the first in line to contribute money if South Rail decides to fund an LP through a crowd sourcing site. Until then, I will enjoy Stars and be thankful that since I live in the DC area, the opportunities to see them in concert again will be abundant.       

[1] Don’t check with my wife. She’ll probably say that it was an accident just to discredit me.

[2] The Men They Couldn’t Hang had great reward levels, too. (Did the No Depression readers think that I was going to write a review without at least mentioning my favorite folk-punk band? Until enough of you buy TMTCH’s album to justify a stateside tour, I will continue to insert the lads from the most important folk-punk band of all time into any and all reviews I write.)

[3] And a music site that doesn’t generally run reviews of Americana/roots albums. 

[4] I initially wrote “three times as much,” but then I remembered that it’s an EP. I love the EP, but $15 would be a little steep. Granted, in the moment, I was so excited about what I had I just heard that I may very well have paid three times as much.

Super sweet harmonies and swingin' rhythm. Thanks for the recommendation, John. It sure is nice to instantly love a band I've never heard of before.

You're most welcome, Kim! When I went to the festival, I wasn't intending on writing any album reviews; but upon hearing South Rail, I immediately thought of the No Depression community.

Thanks for the article, John. I live in DC as well and will defiinitely check out this band.

Hey Chuck,

They are listed as playing at a festival in Tenleytown on Saturday afternoon and at Hill Country BBQ on Thursday.  Maybe I will see you at one of shows.

Bill

Hey Bill! Can't make it Saturday but let me see about Thursday.

I DID just buy tickets for Bottle Rockets/Marshall Crenshaw at the Birchmere in January.

Chuck

Thanks, Chuck. I'm looking forward to seeing the band live again.

John:

Enjoyed your piece on South Rail, caught them last week at Guitars not Guns benefit at Jammin Java. Will be interesting to see how their crowd sourced tour works out. 

 

Thanks, Kevin! I'm sorry that I missed their show at Jammin Java.

I caught their show at Hill Country BBQ in D.C. last night.  It was good to hear the full band (with bass) playing electric instruments.  The room at Hill Country can be difficult, with no cover and dining patrons wandering down plus young professionals and law students coming in to socialize.  In other words, there aren't many in the crowd invested in listening and sticking with the group through the set (maybe 20).  That being said South Rail kept a positive attitude, worked to engage the crowd and adapted their set (maybe a little too much) with some covers intended for a Hill Country crowd (not sure there really is a country or Texas crowd there).  I must say that Lara Supan has a really good and distinctive voice.  It shines on their original tunes and really impressed me on an accapella version of "Wayfaring Stranger".  Lara and Jay have strong harmonies (as John mentioned) and Jay is a talented Strat player.  The group has been beating the paths to build a following (for more than a year) and they have been creative with marketing themselves.  I'm not sure where they fit in the popular spectrum.  Maybe somewhere between the rapidly popular Lake Street Dive and Americana?  Not a jazzy as the former, but not as much grit as the latter.  It will be fun to watch this band endeavor to make it in the (tough) music business.

I love that this band has won some new fans from this piece -- and people in DC who can go see them live. Music criticism FTW.

Indeed.  I'm sure you have experienced the bittersweet feelings of watching many bands/artists work hard to make a breakthrough.  Talent isn't always enough.  Luck, timing, perserverance factor in large ways.  Don Was (though family links with the drummer) had a hand in their current EP, so that helps.  I hope it works out for these guys and I'm not left lamenting another group that could have made it (and was better than what the masses are listening to).  It would be a hoot to see them catch on the way Lake Street Dive has.  As a music afficiando, it is always fun to catch a group on the way up and support them rather than say "how did I miss these guys?".