"There was a lot of old-time, bluegrass and Texas swing influence at the beginning, when we met," says Dango Rose, Elephant Revival's (mostly) bass man. "But that's not really where we came from."
That's a refreshing statement — artists on the roots end of the musical spectrum tend to overstate their folk-flavored underpinnings — and it's also a slightly dangerous one to serve up when you're heading toward a town that owes a considerable amount of its musical identity to those very foundations. Elephant Revival slipped in and out of town last fall for an appearance on Music City Roots during the Americana Music Festival, but they're coming back for another swing at the city's occasionally skeptical audiences, headlining a show that comes in the middle of a weeks-long, meandering tour anchored by a couple days at Florida's Suwannee Springfest.
But while Rose cops to a freewheeling, sweetly good-natured eclecticism that's roomy enough for Texas fiddle stylings, Billie Holiday torch songs, reggae, Gram Parsons country rock and, as he says, "heavy-metal acoustic avant garde" music to rub elbows, the group's laid-back Colorado jam vibe sits on top of not just a considerable range of chops (on an array of instruments, from fiddle and guitar to washboard, mandolin, djembe and beyond), but some surprisingly sharp ideas of how to put all those things together. And the result is a collection of songs — and instrumentals — that has the potential to appeal to just about anyone not irredeemably put off by the fact that the quintet travels the country in a converted church bus that runs on vegetable oil.
The way Rose tells it, there's a long and convoluted story to how Elephant Revival came together, but the punch line (such as it is) has him, Sage Cook, Bridget Law, Bonnie Paine and Daniel Rodriguez — all of them singers, and all of them except for fiddler Law multi-instrumentalists — coming together in Tahlequah, Okla., back in 2006, making a record, playing a couple of shows and then collectively relocating to Colorado. "Everybody went for it," he says with a kind of wry bemusement. They recorded an early show and bootstrapped their career by selling it at subsequent appearances, then made a low-budget, self-titled release in 2008 that endeared them to a fast-growing circle of fans, and they followed it with 2010's Break in the Clouds, released by Ruff Shod.
More than one writer has fumbled around trying to describe the group's sound — or better, sounds, as individual songs tend to have distinct stylistic identities. But whatever the immediate sources and inspirations for each, there's a dandy underlying coherence to the performances that derives from both the long and varied musical experiences of each member and a charming commitment to spontaneity and being in the moment. "It's about developing a set list for the night," Rose offers. "We go by what we feel in the room when we get there. Sometimes it has us drawing deeper back, sometimes we wind up doing a lot of new stuff. It's really good to be able to do both."
Still, it's clear that allegiance to vibe and groove isn't antithetical to musical development and careful career building. To produce their next album, they've turned to fellow Coloradoan Sally Van Meter, one of the best modern navigators between roots fidelity and inspired innovation, and Rose says that they're "opening to new directions. Some voices may be heard a little bit more than others. Will some of our fans who were there at the beginning be surprised? I don't really know. It's not my job to know how somebody else is going to perceive it. We just want to be heartfelt and honest in our expression of who we are as individuals and as a group."
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