Just a damn good band. That’s how I would succinctly describe The Steel Wheels, a folk bluegrass band from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had a chance to catch a recent gig at Knuckleheads in Kansas City – and no, I do not live anywhere near Kansas City, that’s how good they are – and was reminded of how satisfying it is to see a good band perform live. But five words does not a blog post make so allow me to expand a bit.
The Steel Wheels are Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel and Jay Lapp, all tremendously talented instrumentalists and vocalists. Brubaker effortlessly showcases the the full potential of the fiddle, an instrument made for high-speed riffs. Dickel and Lapp are equally strong on upright bass and mandolin, respectively. Quick pause for the mandolin: a beautiful instrument that deserves more spotlight than it gets. Wagler writes a lot of their music and also serves as a vocalist and picks on banjo and guitar. His songwriting is impeccable and features beautifully constructed lyrics that tell a story while simultaneously leaving room for the music - the instruments and their vocal harmonies - to shine.
As with most authentic musicians The Steel Wheels are better live. It’s a challenge to capture the energy of performing for a live audience in a quiet recording studio. The immediacy is lost so the loose, go-with-the-flow quality cannot be duplicated. Other than Josh Ritter’s ear-to-ear grin, the Wheels are at the top of the list of performers who personify pure appreciation and joy on stage. And just like Ritter, I have more fun watching the show because of how much they are having up there. Every song they performed during their set at Knuckleheads was a standout – they don’t really have a weak song in their repertoire – but my favorites were "Go Up to that Mountain," a fun, fast paced tome and "End of the World Again," a beautiful, calm melody.
The Steel Wheels have a few albums out and tour pretty regularly so the opportunity is at hand for you to listen to their music and see them live. The Steel Wheels are in a group with some of my beloved musicians such as Josh Ritter and Socks in the Frying Pan: if more people knew who they were their popularity would soar. Their talent is through the roof, their songs are beautifully crafted and their pure enjoyment in doing what they do is unmatched.