Dustbowl Revival Digs Into Roots Smorgasbord

by | Jan 25, 2023

The eclectic band performs Saturday at the Odeum

By Chris Parker

Genre is the so-what-do-you-do of the music world because as trite and imprecise as it is, there’s a difference between an investment banker and a pastry chef. 

Of course, calling yourself Dustbowl Revival doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination; as you might imagine the Los Angeles seven-piece band specializes in the American roots sound, though these days the category’s broad enough to encompass the country’s entire 3.5 million square miles.

“Who knows what Americana really means these days,” says Dustbowl’s founding singer/guitarist Zach Lupetin. “I think it’s a place where people who appreciate the history of American music go to create the music they’re passionate about without the big capitalist machine behind them right away.”

When he graduated from University of Michigan, Lupetin moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting, screen- and playwriting career. While in college he was in a band called the Midnight Special, which covered everything from Son House and Muddy Waters to Allman Brothers, CCR, the Stones and the Beatles, seeking to sup from the spirit of those greats, he says, “and then create something that stretched it out and made it into kind of a party.”

Dustbowl Revival formed in Venice Beach, Calif., in 2008 out of a Craigslist ad, and from the start were marked by their adventurousness. For one thing, they mix brass and strings, a truly maximalist approach not pursued by many outside the funk realm or old school big bands. 

Lupetin loves brass, and was anxious to find ways to incorporate it. The whole approach is to embrace eclecticism and diversity. “The Dustbowl Revival thing has symbolized my schizophrenic taste in music where I just want to play all of it,” he says.

“Sometimes we have really quiet songs that you’re like, well, there’s no way a trombone is going to work on this melancholy folk song and then…,” Lupetin continues. “The guys in our band grew up playing in orchestra or marching band, and they want to play more stuff than just soul/funk stuff. We have a dynamic range that a lot of bands don’t offer brass players.”

“Honestly,” he confesses a moment later, “some of our quietest songs are also some of our loudest – you’ve just got to wait a couple of minutes.”

The band’s first big break came when they met iconic TV entertainer Dick Van Dyke and his wife while playing a private party on the dry-docked Queen Mary in Long Beach. The Van Dykes became fans of the band, attending shows regularly, and when they finally asked him about doing a video he assented. 

In the video, the then 89-year old comedian capers and goofs like a youngster while his wife cooks and the band plays their bluegrass tune, “Never Had To Go,” in the background. Thanks to Van Dyke’s performance it went viral, racking up 3 million views in the first week.

Of course, any success that big usually proves something of a mixed blessing.

“It was a little too squeaky clean. Like the song was definitely in the bluegrass-pop realm which we don’t do that often but that song was in our rotation at that point,” Lupetin sighs. “It maybe gave people the wrong impression of what we usually do. But it also brought a lot of new folks into our little universe which is hard to do.”

Mixed blessing also describes their second full-length album, 2020’s Is It You, Is It Me. Recorded in late 2019, the band pulls out the stops creating a rich document that goes beyond their usual fare into baroque pop and even richer arrangements. They were proud of the effort which arrived just as Covid was shutting everything down, limiting their ability to make back the money they invested in the recording. 

Despite the rich instrumentation, it isn’t what you’d call a “studio” record. “We recorded live,” said Lupetin. “This is like, we have French horns, a little choir of our friends singing and extra percussion. It’s a really cool experiment for us of really opening up the sound. You could say that you’re going to try to copy that live, but really you’re actually creating something completely new live.”

Obviously unable to recreate all the instrumentation on tour, they’ve reimagined the arrangements to retain the band’s signature live vibrancy. The lineup’s also shifted since the pandemic. Always a fluid outfit, the long break led to three long-tenured members departing, including singer Liz Beebe, who was replaced by Lashon Halley.

“We have some really great new talent that comes in that’s rejuvenated the sound,” he says. “Our new singer Lashon Halley’s just a star. People are really going to be amazed when they finally see her.”

The band’s released a couple of new singles in the past few months that showcase Halley, as they continue to explore the intersection of folk, blues, pop and funk with the boisterous good-time energy nearly implicit to a seven- to nine-piece roots-soul band. 

“Being able to come to New England is always a pleasure for us,” says Lupetin, “because the people really listen and they really care.”

Dustbowl Revival, Saturday, January 28, 2023, Greenwich Odeum. 7 p.m. door, 8 p.m. show. $25. 59 Main Street, East Greenwich; (401) 885-4000.

Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.

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