There is nothing like a Steel Wheels concert and no two Steel Wheels’ performances are the same. Which is to say the Virginia-based quintet’s Jan. 17 gig inside Columbus, Ohio’s, cozy Woodlands Tavern was an in-the-moment, once-and-done occurrence only the 125 fans in attendance had the privilege of experiencing.
Singer, main songwriter, banjoist and guitarist Trent Wagler; Eric Brubaker (fiddle, percussion); drummer Kevin Garcia, playing with sticks, mallets and his hands; double and electric bassist Jeremy Darrow; and mandolinist and acoustic, electric and slide guitarist Jay Lapp spent 95 quickly passing minutes reminding concertgoers the Steel Wheels music, while built on bluegrass, folk, rock and country, is, in reality, its own, unique genre. Add in the singers’ nearly pitch-perfect two-, three- and four-part vocal harmonies and it made sense the evening’s lone cover was “The Weight,” the only number that found Lapp and Brubaker singing co-lead vocals, their respective tenor and baritone voices surrounding Wagler’s leathery instrument and intuiting the Band’s original arrangement, while confirming the Steel Wheels are like no other band.
Much of the set was spent previewing material from the as-yet-unreleased Sideways—“It’s really exciting for us,” Wagler said of premiering the songs – which seems poised to burnish the Wheels’ eclectic reputation established by such numbers as the rambunctious “Wild as We Came Here” and “Scrape Me off the Ceiling” and the summery wistfulness of “Red Wing.”
Along the way, the Steel Wheels rolled across the musical map with head-banging electric guitar and drum solos, a cappella gospels around a single mic and vaguely psychedelic esoterica. Disparate as these styles may be, they fit snugly on the band’s collective axel.
So it went that Garcia’s bass drum and shakers provided the only musical accompaniment to the four voices that sung the spiritually minded “Surround Me.” It was the truism that supported the denim-and-T-shirt mentality of Brubaker’s instrumental fiddle hoedown “Past the Breaks,” one of the band’s few non-Wagler compositions. And it was the sonic mindset that informed Lapp’s head thrashing, Garcia’s soloing and Brubaker’s clanging triangle on “Something New.”
“The later it gets the better dancer you are,” Wagler told audience members at one point.
Given the show was over by 9:40 p.m., dude has a sense of humor to go with his musicality.