Sprouting from the Central Illinois prairie, much like their tall-grass namesake, Big Bluestem String Band have been playing their special brand of string-band stew since about November of 2006.
Tonight at 10 p.m., Big Bluestem will play for a radio audience on WEFT Sessions. You can listen over the air at 90.1 FM, or online at weft.org.
Big Bluestem is a flexible outfit, with (clockwise from upper left) Jose Agusti on guitar, Drew Phillips on mandolin, Tom D’Avello on mandolin, Todd Kinney on bass, Rebecca Grosser on guitar, and Kathleen Everingham on fiddle. Kinney used to play an upright bass, but a shoulder injury forced him to transition to electric.
“The original idea was to be a musical co-op, you’d have a cluster of us that can step in and out as time allowed,” explained Agusti during their rehearsal at Everingham’s Urbana home last week. But so far, they’ve had a pretty steady lineup, although tonight will be the first time that D’Avello, Phillips and Kinney have been present at the same gig.
Most members of the group have known each other for years, through their common histories with other local bands, before forming Big Bluestem. The group uses their varied musical backgrounds, in combination with their innate familiarity with one another, to their collective advantage “We’re eclectic,” Everingham says. “We play a wide array of styles of music — vintage and new — including old-time melodies, archaic to contemporary fiddle tunes, hollers, heart songs, bluegrass, swing, blues and ragtime, with a sprinkling of genre-defying fusions.” I only was present for one song during their rehearsal, a rollicking bluegrass instrumental number called “Arizona”.
Big Bluestem’s members came to old-time music at different points in their lives. For example, Grosser’s first band was an all-girl rock group call The Heads. By contrast, D’Avello said, “I was into old-time stuff early on, like by the late teens, for sure.”
Grosser teased, “The 19-teens?”
“Yeah … the 19 … teens,” D’Avello replied, being a good sport.
Agusti and Phillips took a more indirect route to old-time music. “I was into pop radio, like all to hell,” Agusti related. “When the Beatles made mention of the Everly Brothers, I went straight back to the source. The Everly Brothers referenced Bill Monroe, and then when Jerry Garcia did ‘Old and in the Way’ that sealed the deal.”
Phillips on the other hand, played six degrees of separation from old-time music. “I went from Led Zeppelin to Jethro Tull to medieval music to Grateful Dead to old-time,” he said. “It was actually ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ that did it,” he said as he picked the opening riff on his mandolin.
Big Bluestem String Band operates as something of a democracy, although the level to which it’s functioning is an item of debate. After Everingham stated their democratic ideals, Kinney replied, “I thought it was anarchy?” to a chorus of laughter from the rest of the group.
One thing that Big Bluestem can’t complain about is inappropriate comparisons from their listeners. “No one ever says we sound like anybody,” said Kinney. Although, Phillips noted, “the Avril Lavigne analogies drive me up the wall.”
And that’s Big Bluestem in a nutshell: excellent musicians who’ve been around the block enough times to forge their own sound, but have kept their sense of humor along the way.