Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Old Salt parlays an international flavor in Belgium
While Old Salt can claim Belgium as their home base, in reality, they’re an international outfit in every sense. The three core members of the band are Dan Wall (lead vocals, banjo, violin), who hails from the USA, and his two Belgian brethren Lotte Remmen (vocals, violin) and Johannes Wannyn (vocals, guitar). In addition, the bass duties are taken up by either Toby Kuhn on cello, a native of France, or Tomás Peralta, who plays double bass, mandolin, shares vocals, and comes from Chile.
One could consider them the bluegrass equivalent of the UN!
The original musicians met each other on the Istrian Coast in Slovenia during a world/folk music conference and festival called Etno in 2013. During these two weeks, the participants learned and arranged music that originated from all over the world, and then subsequently performed together as a folk orchestra. Wall did his first ever solo show at the festival and was then joined by a group of new-found friends who volunteered to back him up on stage. That group happened to include Remmen and Wannyn from the city of Ghent in Belgium. Having made that connection, Wall’s various trips back and forth from the Hudson Valley in New York had him making Ghent his hub. Consequently, it was of little surprise that over the course of 2014, the trio began playing together in an increasing number of impromptu concerts.
After initially referring to themselves as Dan Wall and the Waffles, they eventually settled on a more representative name for their band by dubbing themselves Old Salt.
A year later, in 2015, Wall decided to make a permanent move to Europe in order to pursue music full time, and at that point, the band recorded their first album, Up River Overseas, at a studio in the north of Sweden.
“As with bluegrass, we share many of the same folk music roots,” Wall explains. “That includes gospel, blues, old-time music, early jazz, and many of the sounds found on the streets of New Orleans. We always say that our sound is really a journey from New Orleans up through Appalachia, ending up in the Northeast folk revival world of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and friends. Then we just sprinkle in the individual influences the many band members bring with them, including jazz and folk music from Scandinavia and the Balkans.”
“The way we perform also influences our sound,” Wannyn suggests. “Dan started his musical career as a busker, and therefore Old Salt shared many of its early performances and rehearsals out on the streets. That was some of the best training when it comes to learning how to deliver a high energy performance. We still consider ourselves committed to being a live performance band. We perform around a single condenser microphone, which adds this exciting technical dynamic that comes with playing super close together. That’s something we attribute to our bluegrass influences. It’s difficult to imagine our live set without that one mic setup.”
That live set-up has been displayed in venues and festivals in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as on tours taken in Austria, England, Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.
“Unlike in the United States, many European states have realized there’s value in funding small city festivals, events, and culture centers, and therefore there are many small scale festivals scattered throughout Europe in its small cities,” Walls said when asked about the major festivals they’ve played. “I’m not sure what the concept of ‘major festivals’ really means from a European context. Some of the larger festivals we’ve played at are Mainstage Trefpunt Gentse Feesten (BE), the Dranouter Festival (BE), the Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival (NL), the European World of Bluegrass Festival (NL) (where we won the 2017 audience popularity award), the Urkult Festival (SE), the Umefolk Festival (SE), Bühler Bluegrass Festival (DE), Luzern Festival (CH), Buskers Festival Neuchatel (CH), Ulster American Folk Park Bluegrass Festival (IRL), Külturbörse Freiburg (DE), and Floating Castle Festival (SLO).
That’s an impressive list to be sure. It’s also found them in good company. They’ve shared stages with Mike Compton, Joe Newberry, and members of Chatham County line. In addition, they’ve recorded and performed live with the musicians behind the academy award winning film, Alabama Monroe, or, as it was called in Europe, The Broken Circle Breakdown. That group included Nils de Caster, Johan Heldenberg, and Belgian local legends Roland van Campenhout and Bruno Deneckere.
In the process, Old Salt has received widespread acclaim. “They would blow the clouds away at any festival I can think of, and it would be good to see an enterprising promoter get them booked over here,” At The Barrier, U.K. raved. Ireland’s Lonesome Highway declared, “On top of their existing albums of mainly original tunes, Old Salt have demonstrated that they are equally adept at breathing new life into the time honored covers that they sprinkle through their live set. Check it out, and catch them live if you can.”
Just as significantly, the band has won the praises of their audiences back home.
“If our collective home is Europe, we’re doing quite well,” Remmen insists. “We focus our efforts on creating a high energy live show, and the response from those who have seen us across all age groups and cultures has been palpable. The genre, especially among younger people in the EU, is still fairly small, but our recorded music spreads mostly by word of mouth, or through sales at our live shows. Our fan base comes overwhelmingly from our live concerts, which we’ve definitely put the work into since our first shows nearly eight years ago.”
“As for Dan’s home back in the USA, if you take into consideration that we’ve never really been to the States as a live performing band, the response has been surprisingly positive,” Wannyn adds. “Most of our online streams come from the States, and we have a pretty decent fan base back where Dan is from in the Hudson Valley in New York State. Of course, the USA does not make it easy for foreign artists to receive working visas, but we’re actively looking for possibilities to create a tour in the US. To do so without an agency is next to impossible.”
With two albums — Up River Overseas and Commons, and a recent EP, Live in Room 13, all of which can be found online — the band continues to expend part of their focus on their own material. “We try to keep the count of originals to traditional songs about 50/50,” Wannyn said. “We’ve also written music where there was only a lyric or vice versa. As a band, we also seem to have the most fun coming up with crazy arrangements of old songs. It’s always hard to resist the temptation of knitting songs together into wacky medleys. You’ll hear us do old songs like St. James Infirmary, Nine Pound Hammer, Rake and Ramblin’ Boy, Darling Corey, Boll Weevil, Wayfaring Stranger, Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down, Blues in a Bottle, O Death, Hobo’s Lullaby, Cumberland Gap, The Blackest Crow, and Let Me Fall.
That said, the band has a very decided impression as to why bluegrass enjoys such widespread popularity.
“Bluegrass is a very small yet mostly open minded genre that picks many different elements from the vast international melting pot that is traditional US Americana,” Wall muses. “There’s an entry point for every level of musician and enthusiast, as the basic form and structure of the music is quite simple, catchy, and timeless. Therefore, it also leaves tons of room for virtuosity and individuality in improvisation, soloing, and complex arrangements. Most bluegrass events and festivals that we’ve attended also seem pretty open to many interpretations of the genre, and they’re inclusive of many other forms of roots music and various fusions.”
“There’s a lot to be said for the overseas influences that are inherent in American folk music,” Remmen adds. “A Southern German or Austrian person would be pretty interested to hear yodeling harmonies or an occasional alpine waltz. A Ghanaian could hear familiar melodies or rhythmic patterns. An Englishman or Irishman might find some familiar story or narrative. There seems to be a little something for so many different people. And of course the emphasis on singing and harmonies is always a big draw.”
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