Burning down the house: The Lil Smokies bring bluegrass to Keystone
IF YOU GO
What: The Lil Smokies with Lonesome Days
When: Saturday, March 23. Doors open at 7:30 with Lonesome Days taking the stage at 8. The Lil Smokies perform 9:30.
Where: Warren Station, 164 Ida Belle Drive, Keystone.
Cost: $25–30. Visit WarrenStation.com to purchase.
Coming off of two nights in Crested Butte, bluegrass band The Lil Smokies settle into another mountain town with a performance this Saturday at Warren Station. The band, formed in Missoula, Montana, in 2009, has seen a steady growth since its inception and is excited to return to a familiar venue with Denver-based quintet The Lonesome Days.
This September The Lil Smokies will have the honor of playing at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison. “That’s something I never really imagined we would play,” guitarist Matthew “Rev” Rieger said.
A personal favorite of Rieger’s is the High Sierra Music Festival in California, where the band will play at this summer. But for now, fans should see them in Keystone.
“I love that room and love the people in that area. We’ve been on the road for a long time and don’t have the energy to play a mellow set so I would expect a raucous, rowdy affair.”
That love of entertaining people with fresh tunes is what brought the original band members together and what attracted Rieger and fiddler Jake Simpson to join in on the fun three years ago. The band makeup shifted frequently between 2015 and 2016 — at one point being a six-piece — but is now composed of founding members Scott Parker on bass, Matt Cornette on banjo and Andy Dunnigan on Dobro in addition to Rieger and Simpson.
“We’re thrilled with the lineup we have now and the progress we’re making as a band and how comfortable it feels now with these five,” Rieger said. “I don’t see that changing ever and I really hope it doesn’t. However, I’d like to think our sound always has room to evolve. I want it to happen naturally the way we want it to.”
Though he didn’t always know he wanted to play with The Lil Smokies, Rieger has known he’s wanted to be a musician since he was about 10 years old. Before picking up the guitar he was a church pianist and a drummer.
“Really up until I joined The Lil Smokies I was doing whatever I could to make money playing music. Whatever instrument I could play. I’m just really happy being a guitar player now. Which is incredible, because I’m not that good,” he said, laughing. “There are so many excellent guitar players out there.
“The fact that I’m able to do it for a living is amazing. I feel really blessed and thankful.”
Rieger may miss playing (but not carrying) the drums a little, even though he got to play them with Mipso and The Brothers Comatose while on tour, but the guitar still gives him the rhythmic sensation he yearns for.
“My favorite part of my job in many ways is just strumming chords, which is kind of a little like playing the drums in a bluegrass band. … You’re really focusing on the rhythm and harmony and foundation to provide a place for other people to play on top of it. It’s fun and freeing, a Zen sort of activity that I really, really like.”
A lover of Metallica — and other metal bands like Megadeath and Slayer — since his teenage years, it may surprise some that Rieger’s nickname, Rev, comes from the fact that he also adores the gospel tracks of The Stanley Brothers, the Appalachian bluegrass duo known for popularizing “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He doesn’t consider himself a religious man nowadays, yet the traditional hymns still speak to him on an emotional level.
“When I hear these gospel harmonies, I feel genuine love, community and support.
“I still love church piano and hymns, which are more or less Bach chorales and examples of Western harmony. They’re really helpful in understanding other parts of music, how momentum is created within music. They’re fantastic.”
However, the biggest artist to have an influence on Rieger is Billy Joel, specifically his 1977 album “The Stranger.”
“He was the first pop artist that opened my mind to the idea that music could be really simple, have merit and be good.”
Now Rieger is turning to more modern music for the band’s “SnowGhost Singles” project. Started last fall, the endeavor is a series of covers — six in all — released periodically after recording them at SnowGhost Music in Whitefish, Montana. So far The Lil Smokies have given their signature twist to classics such as The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
The most recent release was “Kansas City” by The New Basement Tapes, a supergroup consisting of Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford and others. The collective recorded tracks based on discovered Bob Dylan lyrics, who famously recorded “The Basement Tapes.”
The songs are chosen and arranged by whoever wishes to sing them and one of the next singles to come out will be Rieger’s pick, “Even The Darkness Has Arms” by Canadian indie-folk band The Barr Brothers.
“I listened to it on repeat for about three months straight,” said Rieger. “I just couldn’t stop listening to it and was like ‘I love this song, could we give it a shot?’”
In general, translating and recording covers has been fairly straightforward, but there have been a few tunes that The Lil Smokies had to abandon.
“And that’s fine,” Rieger said. “It’s important in music and in life to let go of things that are just not working. Not to say you should just give up on everything, but there are times where you can give up and not be a failure.”
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