Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bluegrass Singing In The Dead Of Night


Most Beatles fans are aware of the band’s affection for Country & Western music and how much it influenced songs like “I’m Looking Through You” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” The Fab Four also rendered their own classic versions of tunes by Carl Perkins and Buck Owens. Chicago-based duo Sgt. Popgrass is now exploring the flip side of this situation by giving Beatles songs some rustic American appeal.

“We’re two guy singers who play guitars, 12 strings, mandolin, and a mean banjo,” Graham Elvis, who bills himself as Bandmaster 1st Class, Popgrass Army USA, explained via an email. “We do all Beatle songs with a bluegrass style and instruments.”

Graham Elvis was one third of The Elvis Brothers, a rockabilly band that recorded two superb LPs for Portrait in the 1980s, and later, the Now Dig This CD on the indie label, Recession Records. The trio never achieved the success it deserved. Sgt. Popgrass isn’t the first time Graham Elvis has covered tunes by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. He was part of the trio, Not The Be@tles with former fellow Elvis Brother, Brad Elvis and singer-songwriter, Phil Angotti. Once he had the concept for Sgt. Popgrass in mind, Graham Elvis started looking for musicians who would be compatible.

“The right ‘people’ came to me in the singular form of singer/songwriter Baltimore Banjo Wizard, Jacob Panic,” he explained. Together they started “putting an energetic, bluegrass, and original twist on the classic Beatle songs that everyone knows and loves, without making the songs unrecognizable or us playing make-believe Beatles. It’s a built-in pleasure for audiences of all ages.” 

Sgt. Popgrass has recorded at least eight tracks in an ambitious effort that includes music from The Beatles’ LPs rather than just concentrating on the hit singles. Occasionally, their approach is reminiscent of the 1970s band McGuinness Flint. “Love Me Do” is predictably peppy, but it works, while the spare arrangement for “And I Love Her” has a more delicate beauty. “Rain” moves to an easy-going vibe, and “We Can Work It Out” is particularly well-suited to an acoustic guitar and banjo setting.

Graham Elvis and Jacob Panic combine for airtight harmonies throughout, and most of the tracks have passages where they cut loose on their instruments. “Blackbird” and “Cry Baby Cry” have more complex arrangements to match their lyrical content, while a more dramatic beat, edgy vocals, and a hint of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle Of Evermore” add tension to “Helter Skelter.” It may seem odd to hear the politically charged “Revolution” in this context, but folk songs often tackled the heated issues of the time. 

“The tunes are fresh and original takes on classic songs,” Graham Elvis noted. “And we’re one of the few acts that has it’s own genre: Popgrass.” 

Sgt. Popgrass will perform at The Dustin Villarreal Memorial Benefit Concert on Saturday, July 6th, at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. The Cavern Beat and Rick Lindy and The Wild Ones are also on the bill.

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