Live Review

The Steel Wheels Rumble into Charlottesville

The Steel Wheels on April 28, 2017

The Steel Wheels kicked off their 2017 tour with a rousing cd release show in front of a packed house at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA. The band hit the stage with a truckload of energy and the crowd fired it right back to them, artist and audience pushing each other to greater heights. The give and take felt more like a sporting event at times, with the crowd hooting and hollering, and stomping their feet as if it was a home playoff game.

The band was celebrating Wild as We Came Here, their gorgeous new record, recorded last fall in a renovated Maine farmhouse. During the course of the evening they played the entire album, along with plenty of their well-known tunes. It was evident that the band had been itching to get out and play and they seemed ecstatic at the prospect of sharing new material. The crowd response seemed to liberate the boys, turning their performance into a mountaintop experience.

Picture   The foursome of Trent Wagler on guitar and banjo, Brian Dickel on doghouse bass, Eric Brubaker on fiddle, and Jay Lapp on anything with strings, was augmented by Kevin Garcia on drums and keyboards. The addition of drums and keys expanded the group’s sonic palette and infused subtle emotional depth, especially on ballads like “Sing Me Like a Folk Song” from the new album.

Wagler’s singing was nuanced and expressive, whether barreling through an up-tempo number or holding the audience with restraint in the quieter moments. The harmony vocals were exquisite all night long. When a group sounds as good as the Wheels do in the studio, it is always a treat to hear that replicated in a live setting. But Wheels fans have known that for years. Underpinning the proceedings was a sense of joy; the joy of playing, of listening and sharing. The Wheels took the Jefferson and turned it into a living room, albeit a large one, and transformed the theater show into a grand house concert. It was the best of both worlds.

As to be expected, the musicianship was stellar, and the sound crisp and clear. Classic Wheels tunes like “Riverside” and “Rescue Me, Virginia” were greeted with raucous approval. But the evening was really dedicated to unveiling the new material, which was welcomed whole-heartedly by the crowd. “Scrape Me Off the Ceiling,” which should be the lead-off single, was a favorite. Singing “You’ve got me on my heels so long/that I’m barely breathing/tell me something hard to hear/scrape me off the ceiling,” Wagler’s punchy vocal and his simple, yet evocative, banjo picking received thunderous applause from the crowd. Brian Dickel’s haunting backup vocal rang out like clarion call from the Blue Ridge Mountains that the band calls home.

“Riverside,” with its chorus of “well, well, well,” reminded me of both Muddy Waters and The Fairfield Four, blues and gospel, sinners and saints, and seemed to be the perfect distillation of the band’s secular music career and their Mennonite upbringing. “Wild as We Came Here,” the title track of the new album, is both a defiant call and a plea for environmental sanity. Wagler told me after the show that it is based on a true story. Eric Brubaker’s fiddle work is nothing short of amazing. He seems to find the right approach to every song, applying his instrument in the manner that each song needs while keeping it firmly rooted in Appalachian soil.
About two-thirds of the way through the show the band turned Jay Lapp loose on the audience. Attacking his mandolin in a moment of frenzied brilliance, he ran up and down the neck like an amusement park ride on an unreleased track entitled “The Architect’s Daughter.” The audience held on for dear life as Lapp seemed to find every note on the mando, picking like a madman and clearly enjoying himself.

The encore was an absolutely breathtaking performance of “Till No One is Free.” The song closes out the new album and was the perfect coda to a show that strengthened the bond between artist and audience. The choir-like chorus created a spiritual aura, the song wrestling with faith and doubt, and  making a plea for deliverance:
Tell me again, that love will always win
Even if you don’t know If you believe
You hide your doubts all over the house,
Locked up loaded till no one is free
If you have a chance to catch them on this tour, do so, these guys are on fire.