Tonight The Tillers play for bar tips. But they've also been known to busk Clifton's street corners for burritos and dimes.
For these three, it's not about scoring the prettiest stage. It's about conjuring up lost songs, keeping them alive. It's about tackling classics, putting a progressive spin on old-time music. Embracing the past, this formerly Punk-ish trio combines forces to rekindle the spirits and sounds of the Depression Era.
First, Mike Oberst (banjo, vocals, harmonica, guitar, fiddle). With patched jeans. Oberst is smooth in manner, but focused. A soft, persistent cat. With gauged ears, his Punk roots show, but he is a gentle operator. Sean Geil (guitar, vocals, banjo) wears a "Black-n-Bluegrass" T-shirt. Square, thick-rimmed glasses frame his face. Geil, a smiley giant, also plays in The Mt. Pleasant String Band, a Bluegrass outfit.
Numerous tats peek out from under the shirtsleeves of Jason Soudrette (upright bass). His speech is slow and deliberate with a slight Kentucky drawl.
Their looks give them an interesting edge, an imagery mix of modern tattoo joints and lush, historic farms. It's a strange duplicity apparent in their music as well.
In 2000, Soudrette and Oberst played in the Punk band Disarmed, but Oberst and his dad had always played Folk together. Oberst was further inspired from the Punk 'zine Politburo Punk when he happened to flip to an article on Country/Roots music, celebrating the time "when guitar was a learning tool to get issues out."
Geil says, "We all played in Punk bands. I always liked Folk, early Delta Blues. I just fell in love with that early Folk."
After joining Irish/Folk group The Blue Rock Boys, Oberst started playing solo, drawn to the songs he heard on old recordings. Learning the five-string banjo, he studied Pete Seeger, who brought Old-time music to New York City in the '40s. Oberst was intrigued with The Almanac Singers, a rotating cast of '40s Folk musicians that included Woody Guthrie, all of whom were versatile, ever-changing and political.
Oberst says, "We try to blend a mix of a time before Bluegrass music was popular back then it was called old-time music.' The Bluegrass term didn't come until the late '40s. All they really did was take that old-time music and speed it up."
Geil adds, "Old-time music is a little dirtier, a little looser."
Meanwhile, Soudrette was in Downhill Luke, a Punk band that "fizzled out." Soudrette says, "Mike called me up one day and asked me if I'd play an upright bass. I was a little hesitant. I'd never (knew how to play) upright, but I really enjoyed playing it."
Oberst says, "Jason has always been a bass player and can pick up things really easily."
On their debut CD, Ludlow Street Rag, Oberst says, "They're very important old songs and our job is to keep them alive. The idea is that this music is simple and not over-produced. So much sound (today) is perfect. This music isn't by any means perfect sounding ... there's a lot of freedom with it."
You can perhaps catch The Tillers' freedom on Ludlow Avenue, where they randomly play the restless street, letting old sounds leak out of the gutters, crying up from the pavement, turning it into a dance floor.
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