Live Review: Carrie Nation and The Speakeasy at The Handlebar

Flogging Molly fans, here’s your next fix.  Carrie Nation & the Speakeasy, the self-described “high energy, acoustic brass ‘n’ grass outfit” from Wichita, will appeal to folk and bluegrass lovers, contra dancers, and anyone who likes a good ho-down.  They describe their music as Inebriated Americana Showtunes, combining sounds from the Southern Appalachians, the Mississippi Delta, and the old West.  However, they are not a country band in the contemporary sense, defined by the whining, drunken guitar leads and twangy vocals.  Quite the opposite; the strings are quick and precise, the brass clear and golden, and the vocals a breath of fresh air.The bearded troupe opened with a feel good beat and a fast mandolin strum which would set the tone for the night.  And then, Jarrod Starling began to sing.  He had a supercharged voice like a cross between Louis Armstrong and a high-speed locomotive, and even though I had heard their tracks before and knew what to expect, I felt like I had been hit by a gale force wind.  Among the audience, I heard various gasps from people who had probably expected a twangy hillbilly sound and were pleasantly surprised.Although the vibrant lyrics covered loving, traveling, and moonshine, few people could understand the words through Starling’s gravelly vocals and the bustling bar area’s acoustics.  The lyrics were not a point of focus, nor were they meant to be.  Perhaps the biggest stars of the show were Rev Aaron Morris on the trumpet and Tyler Grubb on the trombone (or “slushpump,” in country slang) who could blow raunchy blues and precise, mile a minute polkas.  For a look at what they can do, check out this fun jig called Drunkle:

There were plenty of strings to support the band and pluck solos.  No bluegrass band is complete without a banjo, and Matt Dreher stepped up to the plate.  There was also Brody Wellman on upright bass, Zach Starling on a washboard turned into a harp, and Jarrod Starling playing guitar in addition to vocals.  Are Jarrod and Zach brothers?  Probably.  But they, and the rest of the string players, can do some fast picking.  In Way to Kansas we hear some mandolin noodling at the very beginning:

The whole band seemed to be having a great time, and they passed that energy to the audience.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a band that utilizes the bar scene as its own kind of canvas instead of a small venue on the long road to stardom.  Carrie Nation & the Speakeasy is definitely a ‘live’ band.  They released their first album, Carrie Nation & the Speakeasy, in 2010, and they have another on the way, but recordings simply can’t compare to seeing them in person.

The Handlebar of Greenville, South Carolina was packed as usual on the evening of February 20th, but not with your stereotypical country fans.  Carrie Nation & the Speakeasy drew in the suit and ties, the tattooed, the hipsters, the college students, and a few couples.  Several people sang along with the more popular choruses, suggesting that CNS already has a fan base here in the upstate.

Come for the brassy folk dance tunes, but don’t be surprised if they change it up with a waltz tempo or an untraditional scale.  Their music will transport you from the Appalachian acoustic bar to a German tavern to a smokey Western saloon to Bourbon Street.  Just be careful not to step on anyone’s toes when you’re dancing.  With breakneck tempos, New Orleans brass, and powerful gravelly vocals, even the most adamant opponents of heartland music will be tapping their feet.

The show lasted from 9 PM to about midnight, with a break in between.  Their schedule has not been updated recently, but hopefully someone will get to that soon.  In the meantime, check your local venues to see if they’re coming, because they are well worth seeing.  Bring your friends, bring your coworkers, or, if you need a date idea, bring your girlfriend.  It will be a fun bonding experience for everyone.

Carrie Nation & the Speakeasy’s first album is available on iTunes, and they are releasing a new album soon.  Keep your eyes peeled!


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