The Steepwater Band:
Chicago's "Next Big Thing" foreshadows the dawn of the New Age of Rock Realism
by Shelly Harris
music from the heart "-- yes, it's a rarity in today's fast food, "ear
candy," push-button, rockstar mentality. But, thank goodness for those
unstoppable, circular cycles of change ... And change is in the air,
without question, although lately there has been some heated discussion in the
music business peripheries about just when we'll see the inevitable, en
vogue return of the "guitar god" -- not to mention highly crafted,
bona fide musicianship and the rebirth of songwriting substance and soul.
Though some speculate it won't happen until the next generational changing of
the guard, if you dare to take a listen to Brother to the Snake,
the bluesy, gritty, steaming and retro-vibed collection of rock songs released
by Chicago's Steepwater Band -- or, better yet, go out and see them literally burn
down the house Live -- you'll definitely be ready to place bets that the
long-awaited New Age of Rock Realism will dawn much sooner.
Dubbed "The Next Big Thing" by Chicago's resident rock photography icon, Paul Natkin (not to mention nearly every one else with a pulse on the city’s music scene), The Steepwater Band, comprised of Jeff Massey (lead guitar, lead vocals), Michael Connelly (lead vocals, harmonica, guitar, keyboards), Joseph Winters (drums), and Tod Bowers (bass), are, in the best sense, a throw-back to the past with their gutsy - but - ultra hip concoction of rocked-out, blistering blues and “whiskey-soaked” southern soul (with just a tinge of the "psychedelic" undertones reminiscent of the Joplin/Hendrix/Cream/Butterfield Blues era). But, as difficult as their patently unique musical elixir is to pigeonhole, a nutshell description might be that they’re an updated, 21st Century composite of Allman Bros./Free/Faces -- with a healthy dash of Zeppelin-esque genre cross-pollination and experimentation thrown in for good measure.
Most often, though, they’ve been likened to the Black Crowes stylistically and for their penchant for improvising and reinventing their own tunes onstage. It’s an association the band finds flattering - though not entirely accurate. Winters notes, alluding to the fact that The Steepwater Band’s approach is often even more straight-ahead roots oriented, "We all like them a lot, but we are different." And, as Connelly, the band’s resident frontman/wailer/harp-master elaborates, "I understand the comparison, because if you’ve got to compare us to anything that’s around nowadays, that’s the closest thing that’s popular that you can cling to. I think they are more hard rock than we are, but they’re still 70s sounding, and so are we. And they were important to us, early on, coming out of the 80s, in the way that they reminded you of what to look back on to find music that really meant something. And I look at us as a channel, too; when you talk to us, you’re going to hear about people like Muddy Waters, and Traffic, and Freddie King, and Otis Redding.”
Along those lines, Winters opines, "I think Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones are two of the biggest influences on this band and I'll tell you why: Both of those artists made their careers around great songs, but also real feel, real tones, and real instrumentation ... And I think AC/DC has an influence on this band, in some crazy way, too, in just the intensity level of it." Connelly chimes in, laughing, "Yeah, they're the ultimate in a party, rock, and just-have-fun band -- just balls-to-the-wall good time. If you want to cut loose, and just not care, them and the Stones are two bands where it was like, they didn't care, so it makes you not care!"
While top echelon shredmeister Massey says he can narrow down the two biggest influences on his guitar playing to Jimmy Page and blues-pioneer Robert Johnson (“My favorite guitar players are guys who can also write a song”) and Bowers quickly cites other bassists like Free’s Andy Fraser and Faces’ Ronnie Laine (for their quirky playing style and songwriting ability), Connelly interjects, with complete accuracy: "I can think of about two billion influences on this band! We can all mention five each without repeating any. But our influences aren’t really so much a certain person or a certain band; it’s a song thing. We’re influenced by great songs, the ones that make you say, ‘God! I should have bought 50 of this album!’-whether it’s for the style, or the honesty. It’s just real, it’s raw, and it’s got talent shining through that makes you want to sound like that. But, actually, my favorite songs usually took four or five times before I ‘got it’ - and that was part of what made them so good.”
Adds Massey, “In the end, the most important thing is that you just have to play the kind of music you like, and that’s IT. But we’ll never be in the position to say that we’re as good as any of our influences - if you do, then there’s something wrong!” Laughs Bowers, “Yeah, they’ve got a name for guys like that!”
It should be noted that The Steepwater Band actually took its name from a boat they spotted on the highway (a full two years prior to the "Stillwater" of Almost Famous notoriety), mainly because Massey liked the "southern sound" of it, but there is a secondary connotation, too, regarding the band's deep and pure roots/rock influences. In fact, in a cover article on the band earlier this year to commemorate their Readers’ Choice Award as Chicago’s #1 band, Midwest Beat publisher/editor Tom Lounges warned: "Chicago music lovers should readily dip themselves a cool and refreshing cup of Steepwater. Drink up deeply and enjoy it now, while it still flows freely in the tributary of the local club scene, because soon it’s bound to be bottled and sold."
And, as Bowers notes, "We have definitely seen a slow but steady progression. We’ve gone from guys yelling out ‘Stevie Ray Vaughan!’ all the time four years ago, to the point where everyone is coming now, even at the suburban places, wanting and expecting to hear us play our own stuff. And, if you can make it doing an original thing coming from here, you can make it just about anywhere." He adds, "We’ll sometimes play a cover tune [i.e. “All Right Now,” “Down By The Levy,” etc.], but never when it’s expected, and we always do them in our own style. Sometimes the audience doesn’t even know it when we do play a cover -- until they begin to recognize the lyrics.”
And that “progression” Bowers speaks of has seen
the band headlining the most prestigious clubs in Chicago (The Metro, The Double
Door, The Wise Fools Pub, The Beat Kitchen, etc.), as well as expanding their
base outward to other states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. In fact,
they have such depth and diversity in their extensive set-lists that they manage
to fit right in on the bill at the Chicago and Madison Blues Fests, or as a
Buddy Guy favorite at a recent WXRT radio showcase at the legend's renowned
Wabash Avenue club. On the other hand, their southern-fried soul flavorings have
also made them compatible opening for Country-influenced renegades like David
Allan Coe or for the Georgia Satellites offshoots, The YaHoos. Then, too, their
rough ‘n ready, seminal British Blues-Rock influenced leanings made them
obvious openers at the recent Bad Company show at the House of Blues - and
that's not even taking into account the side of their music that has an affinity
with early Eagles, Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, and old and new age
Americana artists from Johnny Cash to Ryan Adams to Steve Earle.
(Coincidentally, the band will go to NYC in September to record an updated
"new song" demo, with Earle's guitarist, Eric Ambel, producing.)
Though they hope to avoid the “bite-the-nose-to-spite-the-face” syndrome sometimes caused by too much artistic rigidity, the band members make clear that they have no intentions of compromising their musical integrity, vision, or style purely for the sake of current trend-inspired commercial acceptance. As Massey emphasizes, “We’re looking at this over the long term.” Connelly adds, “We’re not stupid, and we do know about the business side of things, but we also know that if someone understands our music enough, they can push it, and they will make people tune into it without having to alter it. We know there’s quicker routes, but we’re not going to twist it to the point were we’re not even happy playing it ... And whatever category they put us in, they might have to change that with the next album … But we are ‘Rock.’ And, even though we happen to touch heavily on Blues or even ‘70s era Country on some of our songs, we’re still gonna be Rock.”
And, certainly their palpable conviction to “real and raw music” and to the slow burn rather than the "I wanna be an instant rockstar" mentality, is also a legacy from the seminal, highly eclectic, rock era of the late 60s/early 70s. And it is just one more thing that makes the band stand out above the masses in their rapidly expanding Midwestern stomping grounds. As drummer Winters confides from the back porch patio of the "The Steepwater Ranch" (the multi-storied, romantically decadent and bohemian-artsy urban farm house where all the band members eat, live, write, and practice with a formidable dedication and discipline): "We really believe in this band. And I think that a lot of that comes from Jeff [band co-founder Massey]. He really has faith in this band and what we're doing, and he won't let anything stand in the way -- not women, not money, not anything. Because he has that kind of dedication and conviction, it makes the rest of us feel the same way, too ... And I think that it is so strong, that the audiences can actually feel it, too... and sometimes I think it actually makes them believe in it as much as we do."
Winters is right: Above all else, the thing that rivets anyone who sees the band play - whether it be the most apathetic factory worker to the most jaded music critic, or whether it be at the local watering hole or the area’s most prestigious venue -- is the unmistakable vibe that what these guys are doing is not only refreshingly original and supremely well-played, but also that it is, without question, as authentic as Hell. Even people like the aforementioned Natkin, a veteran of the Windy City major-league music scene for the past 25 years, lose their deadpan stoicism when The Steepwater Band is mentioned. As Natkin recently elaborated with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, "They are going to be huge, and they deserve it. They ARE the real thing. They are great musicians, and they live it, and they are totally dedicated to what they do.”
Natkin, of course, is not alone in such sentiments. The band were recently tabbed to do a morning showcase on WGN’s national TV station, and people like Donald Kinsey of The Kinsey Report ("These guys are the new blood") have also been chiming in, not to mention DJ Richard Milne of WXRT Radio Chicago ("Classic influences, but no nostalgia ... these guys are fresher than most of what gets passed off as new these days"), writer Monica Kendrick of The Chicago Reader ("I never thought I'd hear Allman-flavored country blues done this well by anybody in 2001"), writer Eric Steiner of Midwest Beat ("The Steepwater Band represents the past, present, and future...") and Keith Hannaleck, editor of Muzikman's Sound Script ("This is a band with rock ‘n roll in their soul and blues in their blood").
Massey himself observes that the entire band has more than enough dedication to their collective musical vision to wholeheartedly lay it all on the (proverbial) line: “I think all four of us do feel we’re living the music we play. Because all four of us moved in the house - and have given up many of the things like insurance -- things that most other people rely on. And I think it shows, and maybe it’s a little more convincing because we depend entirely on gigging for our money. I’m not bragging, but it does put an intensity into your music where people might see, ‘Well, hey! -- They’re not f----in’ around!’ Some bands get noticed quicker than others, and get quicker breaks, but I think we’ve developed a lot by playing all the time. We look at it as a career and we don’t want to be a band that’s doing it to get rich quick and then disappear. And you do have to really want to do it, because it’s a fun lifestyle, but it’s not always easy ...” Massey adds, with a wry laugh, “I do have other interests, but there’s no separation for me; this is it. I wake up in the morning, and there’s no golf in the schedule! I may think ‘I’m not going to play the guitar at all today,’ but it’s always there. It’s a love, and an obsession, and maybe that’s why musicians are strange people!”
Connelly, who also spends virtually every non-gig day songwriting, either with the band or various outside collaborators (while Bowers and Winters share many of the band’s day-to-day “business” duties), concurs: “We feel lucky, because not everyone has discovered something in life that they have a real passion for doing. Some days we may have only a hunk of cheese in the refrigerator, or some bread and some milk and coffee … but we get up every day and we can laugh! When you’re doing what you love to do for a living, it’s not work.”
For sound bites, or more info on the album and the band’s gig schedule (including their August 30 headlining show at The Metro in Chicago) check out www.steepwater.com or see www.cdbaby.com.
Live photo by Paul Natkin
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Copyright © 2002 by R. Scott Bolton. All rights
Revised: 23 Aug 2016 22:57:11 -0400.