A gospel of harmony Voices for community in a divided time, Steel Wheels return to Bellows Falls tonight
BELLOWS FALLS -- Count the Steel Wheels among those voices for unity in the wake of last week’s election.
"We were looking at this fall tour and, of course, this election just finished up, and it feels like a spate of how loud we can yell at each other and how far we can yell past each other, and we were thinking ‘What can we do?’" said Trent Wagler, lead singer for the Virginia-based Americana-roots band, which is playing tonight at 7:30 p.m., at the Bellows Falls Opera House. "We decided in the midst of all this noise, maybe it’s better to just offer a chance for people who may be of different beliefs to get together."
They chose two vehicles for this conciliatory effort. One is the simple, uplifting power of their music, a blend of traditional styles like bluegrass, gospel, the blues, country, old-time, with a dash of rock and roll.
The other is some good old-fashioned outreach. A portion of every ticket sold for tonight’s concert will go toward music education for elementary school students in Bellows Falls.
"It’s exciting when we find ways for let music be a catalyst for other things. Music is a great catalyst for energy to coalesce," said Wagler, speaking as he was looking through a packet of thank-you notes from elementary school students who benefited from a previous tour stop.
Wagler expects a hot time tonight when the band returns to Bellows Falls. The Steel Wheels have played here three times before and have built a following, sealing the deal with a sizzling set at Roots on the River this past summer.
"Bellows Falls has been great to us. We want to spend more time in Vermont. We love it up there," said Wagler. "It’s a sweet little place."
For the uninitiated, tonight presents a chance to hear this band’s unique approach to forging something new from old traditions.
"We call this music Americana Roots music. We love and respect old and traditional music, but we’re moving and changing this traditional music into something different," said Wagler. "It’s true Americana. It’s much like America -- it’s always moving and constantly changing."
Among the things that make the Steel Wheels stand out is the vocal prowess of all four members. Sometimes, the group will ditch its acoustic instruments -- the mandolin played by Jay Lapp, the fiddle of Eric Brubaker and the bass of Brian Dickel -- and bust out into compelling four-part a cappella harmony. Other times, the group’s instrumental talent shines through.
"This music is about roots. It’s about trying to look back and learn something and also look ahead," said Wagler.
The group is forward-looking in non-musical ways. As they’ve grown as musicians, they’ve also tried to figure out ways to add mission to their music-making. The Steel Wheels have raised money and awareness for causes important to them -- community, the environment and the localvore movements, among them. They’ve also ditched their tour bus, at times, for pedal-powered bike tours, carting everything by bicycle.
"We started asking ourselves ‘What does it mean that we’re traveling so many miles?’ ... It’s pretty easy to get a little jaded about coming to the next little town," said Wagler. "(Bike touring) totally changes what it is we do. It makes you appreciate the miles that we travel."
Those miles are increasing as the word gets out about the band. They’ve already wowed crowds along the Eastern seaboard, and are making their first forays into Florida and California soon. They also captivated crowds at Merlefest and drew raves from Larry Groce of "Mountain Stage," who praised them as "Americana music at its very best."
Advance tickets to tonight’s show, presented by Vermont Festivals and Flying Under Radar, are $18 general, $25 for priority seating and $16 for balcony. General admission is $24 at door. There is a special category for those who have seen the Steel Wheels and know how good they are and wish to spread the word: 5-tickets-for-the-price-of-4 priority seats for $99.
For tickets, visit www.brattleborotix.com. Tickets are available at Village Square Booksellers and Fat Franks in Bellows Falls, Turn it Up! in Brattleboro and Misty Valley Books in Chester. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, call 802-463-9595 or visit www.vermontfestivalsllc.com.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.