A good band reflects its collective influences, a great band transcends them. Denim Road folds its members’ long musical histories into a hybridized synthesis of sounds they love and sounds they’ve already made. As a result, the sextet’s eponymous debut exudes a soulful Pop vibe that is comfortably, classically familiar, like an album you’ve heard a hundred times the first time through.
“If you’ve got half an hour, I can tell you why that is,” says keyboardist Gary Grawe over beers on the Back Porch Saloon patio.
Technical explanations aside, Denim Road lays down a groove with their original material that stands shoulder to shoulder with the bands they cover — the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Joe Cocker and Hall and Oates, among others. The long résumés of DR’s journeymen members highlight their incredible diversity: Lead vocalist George Harp fronted Prog/Pop outfit Starcastle for seven years and guitarist Jim Zuzow and bassist Robbie Lewis have played for uncountable area Rock, Blues and show bands. Percussionist Craig Ballard has been in the local scene for four decades, notably with Ray Peterson and Mad Lydia & Cincinnati Joe, while drummer Kevin Ross kept the beat for I.C. Hot, the original Warsaw Falcons and Top 40 band Heroes. New keyboardist Grawe has been a band member and solo artist for around 40 years.
“None of us have ever really had a conflict in the band,” Zuzow says. “George and I have been together 11 years, Robbie’s been here eight. We’re like family.”
“We go to graduations, Christmas parties, birthday parties, whatever,” Lewis says. “We’re that tight.”
Zuzow and Harp co-founded Soul’d Out in the late ’90s, and as gigs accrued and the lineup evolved (Lewis signed on eight years ago, Ballard followed within months, Ross joined in 2007 and Grawe last summer), Zuzow felt confident taking their originals into the studio. As the process began, a quick Web check revealed dozens of bands that claimed the name Soul’d Out. To avoid legalities, they rechristened themselves.
“We have a song called ‘Denim Road’ and our producer (Larry Goshorn) said, ‘What about the name Denim Road?’ ” Zuzow says.
“We kicked it around and couldn’t come up with anything better so we stuck with Denim Road.”
The band started recording more than two years ago, scrapping half an album’s worth of material and starting over with the addition of Ross, who Harp calls “our human metronome.”
“You have to wrap it up to experience,” Harp says. “We spent a lot of money and time, but you learn from the bumps as well as the glides.”
“If you don’t have a foundation to build on — and I’m talking about a drummer — you’re dead in the water,” Zuzow says. “Kevin came in and laid down four songs in two hours and we knew we could move forward at a higher level.”
The band’s song “Law of Attraction” became the yard stick to judge drummers by, and Ross sailed through the gauntlet.
“There were no tapes and they said to me, ‘We’ve got this song, it goes like this, play like Terry Bozzio,’ and I said, ‘I can’t play like Terry Bozzio,’ ” recalls Ross. “But they were like, ‘It’s got this verse and bridge and these changes, just go crazy.’ It was a cool song.”
Denim Road is clearly a band that succeeds on its members’ chemistry. As each piece of the band’s puzzle has fallen into place, their sonic picture has become more focused. With Grawe’s arrival — his work doesn’t appear on the CD but can be heard on new tracks posted at www.denimroad.net — the last important component is in place.
“We looked for 10 years for the right keyboardist,” Zuzow says. “Somebody that fit the band and had an understanding. Gary really filled that perfectly.”
“As you get older, you look for that one thing that’s going to keep you interested and prolong your musical ambition,” Grawe says. “When you start in 1964, you either keep the fire burning or the fire burns out. Jim’s music, no pun intended, really struck a chord with me because I just really like it. And everything gets better and better. Jim allows everybody in the band to have input into his music, which is, to me personally, a wonderful blessing.”
Zuzow is Denim Road’s primary songwriter and he’s assembled the perfect group to shape and present his material.
“He’s a songwriting machine,” Lewis says with a laugh. And giving props to Ballard, the lone member absent for the interview, Lewis notes, “He’s the wild card. We’ve tried to play without him when he’s out of town and it’s not the same.”
With disparate backgrounds and experiences, Denim Road converges to interpret, flavor and enhance Zuzow’s music, whether in studio or on stage. It’s obviously a joyful process. Food metaphors creep into the musical discussion; Harp describes Ballard as “a Cajun spice” and Zuzow picks up the thread.
“A band is like stew,” he says. “Whatever you have in the refrigerator, you put in there and whatever the ingredients are, it comes out to be what it is. Personally, I feel like we have ingredients that work. Everybody has different influences but we’re all headed in the same direction. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14, and just to have six people like this at the same time creating at a high level is almost its own reward.”
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