The Steel Wheels rolled out a drum solo early in their Dec. 9 set inside Columbus’ King Arts Complex.
This would hardly be noteworthy, except for the fact that the Steel Wheels are ostensibly a bluegrass band, and bluegrass bands rarely have percussionists and basically never do drum solos. Quirkier still, the group’s new drummer, Kevin Garcia, doubles on keyboards – because every bluegrass band needs a quality keyboardist for pickin’, grinnin’ and snythesizin’.
This fondness for the non traditional is what makes the Wheels – the core quartet of singer/songwriter Trent Wagler (guitar, banjo), guitarist/mandolinist Jay Lapp, bassist Brian Dickel and fiddler Eric Brubaker – so appealing. Lapp plays a resonator without a slide, fashioning leads that sound as if they’re coming from a Stratocaster as a result, and bangs his head and makes rock-star poses with a tiny mandolin in his hands. Dickel, meanwhile, occasionally sets down his standup bass in favor of a four-string electric instrument.
The show marked the Virginia-based quintet’s second visit – and fourth overall – to Columbus’ Six String concert series since early 2016 and far surpassed their most-recent performance. Whether this was due to Garcia’s presence, an infusion of new material or the band simply having a really good night is unknown. And it doesn’t really matter, because the Steel Wheels gave music lovers an early Christmas present made of memories.
The quintet’s exuberant, 90-minute show featured a significant swath of 2017’s Wild as Where We Came, a record that found the Steel Wheels further expanding their musical universe. Highlights included “Scrape Me off the Ceiling” and “Take Me to the Ending,” which feature Wagler’s clever wordplay and the band’s uproarious arrangements. On the flip side, the tender “Till No One is Free” was a melancholy meditation on societal strife that employed brief snippets of silence as part of the song’s structure.
But for all their non-traditional vibe, the Steel Wheels also roll old-school.
Brubaker shone on his instrumental “Mountain Quake,” which Wagler aptly described as sounding “ancient.” And when the band abandoned their instruments and gathered around a single mic for a cappella gems such as “Rain in the Valley,“ the effect was stupefying; these were the moments that earned the band the handful of standing ovations it received.
Similarly, “Red Wing,” based on a traditional melody Wagler learned from his Amish grandfather and added words to, caused the full house to fall silent – spellbound applause didn’t ring out until the last note had faded completely away.
Band members spent the show interacting with one another, each stepping to the fore when it was his turn to take a solo, sometimes facing off and grimacing with rock ‘n’ roll attitude in a decidedly non-rock ‘n’ roll setting. Despite the addition of Garcia – a wise choice as his work with mallets, brushes and hand-held percussion gives the group a fuller sound – Wagler still plays percussion with his boots, whether bashing his heels on the stage or employing stomp boxes that filled out the sound with pops and bashes.
All of which is to say the Steel Wheels are a band bluegrass fans and non-fans alike can likely get onboard with.