Steel Wheels live at WDVX in Knoxville

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The Steel Wheels on Blue Plate Special at WDVX – photo by Alissa B. Cherry

There are certain bands that remain personal favorites over the course of their careers, demanding instant attention while also commanding an immediate spotlight with each successive effort. Yet, given the incredible influx of new music that’s constantly competing for that consideration, it’s often difficult to focus on any one artist in particular, or even remember why one was so enamored with them in the first place. 

Happily then, having the opportunity to witness a particular group in performance brings a quick recall, and a reminder of why one saw them as so special and essential in the first place. That was the happy occurrence that transpired when The Steel Wheels played a special lunchtime live set for Knoxville independent radio WDVX’s ever-popular Blue Plate Special program on December 2.

After an excellent opening performance by Nashville-based singer/songwriter, Dana Cooper, Steel Wheels squeezed onto the compact stage located in the Knoxville Visitor’s Center and played an abbreviated set drawn mostly from the band’s last two albums, Everyone A Song, Volume One and Volume Two. The two releases were spawned from an intriguing concept — one that had the band offering fans an opportunity to share some special personal experiences with the group, which were, in turn, made into a song. What emerged was some truly memorable music, much of it affecting and meaningful in a universal sense.

Of course, Steel Wheels have always maintained a special connection with their fans. While they’re all unassuming people, Jay Lapp (vocals, guitars, mandolin), Eric Brubaker (vocals, fiddle), Trent Wagler (lead vocals, guitar, banjo), Kevin Garcia (percussion), and Derek Kratzer (bass), are also multi-talented musicians, adept at a playing a variety of instruments in their effort to vary the music’s tone and texture. While the melodies maintain a suggestion of  the bluegrass basics, they’ve also shifted their stance towards grassicana, opening up the possibilities for melody and emotion in equal doses.

That, of course, was not only evident in the origins of the two recent recordings, but also in the craft and conviction with which the material is delivered. Wagler did an admirable job of sharing the backstories for each song, but  it was also evident from the get-go that each offering stood well on its own. Indeed, each performance — beginning with an engaging Where I’m From, and progressing through the quiet, contemplative Adventures of Grace and Henry, the subtle sheen of It’s Your Fault (all three of which were taken from Everyone A Song Volume Two), the persistent picking of Scrape Me Off the Ceiling (from 2017’s Wild As We Came Here), and culminating with their tearful yet evocative Family is Power (from the first Everyone A Song) — ensured an exacting embrace.

While each tunes was based on an individual premise, they all held a melodic approach in common, resonating and connecting instantly and emphatically with the listeners. Each member of the band did his part, from Wagler’s decisive lead vocals to Garcia’s agile yet subtle rhythms on what appeared to be an oversized gourd. Garcia was also credited with mixing and mastering the group’s two recent releases, after the members had recorded their individual parts from their disparate locales.

The combination of harmony and happenstance was both impressive and inspiring, and in the end, there wasn’t a single audience member that didn’t feel the Steel Wheels’ unique bluegrass bond. Music and magic have never worked as well in tandem.

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