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Dustbowl Revival has always been about pushing the boundaries of what American roots music can be. After celebrating over a decade of sonic adventuring and playing thousands of shows together in ten countries and counting, the group collected a devoted fanbase coast-to-coast. After throwing five of their own virtual Sway-At-Home festivals during the shut-down featuring nearly forty artists, the always evolving group of string and brass players led by founding members Z. Lupetin, Josh Heffernan, Ulf Bjorlin are excited to welcome a new wave of talent to the band, after emerging from a pandemic touring hiatus.
After spending years on the road, selling out hometown shows at LA’s famed Troubadour, headlining festivals and wowing crowds from Denmark to China, Dustbowl Revival never stopped making their joyful, booty-shaking soul songs and cut-to-heart folk-rock ballads that lift up their transcendent live shows.
Even so, with the bands emotional new single “Beside You” and 2020’s ambitious full length Is It You, Is It Me, they wanted to strike into new terrain. As they mined new energetic material from the place where folk and funk music meet, they teamed up with producer Sam Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter) and engineer Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens). The latest album strikes a more personal note than ever before, representing the latest stage in a band that never stops exploring new sounds.
Many of the songs feel like small theater pieces coming to life verse by verse. It’s the yin-yang conversational harmony that is the true specialty of lead songwriter and singer Z. Lupetin, who also doubles as a playwright and recently wrote the music for a Greek tragedy set in Gold Rush era California. While longtime co-lead Liz Beebe has stepped away from the band after a long run, an amazing young talent in Lashon Halley has stepped in to bring new life to the songs, matching Lupetin’s intense vocal range with her own.
With a big brass-and-strings band building around the voices, Is It You, Is It Me isn’t afraid to explore the personal and political tension that the group may have shied away from facing before. The album tackles uneasy topics, often where the political feels personal, especially in the defiant “Get Rid of You,” which was inspired by the student activists who emerged from the tragic Parkland High School shooting in Florida. The ominous driving brass groove of “Enemy,” hones in on a painful generational split between a daughter and her parents who may have voted in a tyrant, and have become strangers to her. This yearning search for common ground pervades the record as a whole.
Where the band really sets on a new course is on lushly cinematic, orchestrated set pieces like “Mirror,” “Runaway” and, most notably, the current fan favorite and live showstopper “Sonic Boom,” about the struggle to reveal who you really are in the hidden, rose-colored world of social media. There’s a new widescreen expansiveness to these songs that wouldn’t be out of place in a packed arena or orchestra hall with a full neon light show. Acting like a nimble rock orchestra, during the recording process, each member played multiple instruments, and the group brought in new musicians on symphonic brass, and local friends to sing as a spur-of-the-moment choir.
If one thing is clear, Is It You, Is It Me represents another large leap forward for Dustbowl Revival, coming after their acclaimed self-titled 2017 album. Produced by Grammy-winner Ted Hutt (Old Crow Medicine Show, Drop Kick Murphy’s), it transitioned the group from a “roots dance party band” that continues to thrive on the festival circuit, to a nuanced ensemble embracing more soulful territory without losing their original fire. That self-titled record was a direct bridge to the newest work, rising number to one on the Amazon Americana chart and featuring a funky favorite “Honey I Love You” where the band joyfully teaming up with blues master Keb Mo’. Their heartache folk number “Got Over”, surprised the band by racking up over seven million streams and counting online. “Beside You” stayed in the Americana charts for months and “Enemy” became a staple on SiriusXM, especially during the 2020 election. To top it off, Billboard Magazine added about that Is It You, Is It Me is “the biggest sonic work of the Venice, Calif.-based troupe’s career.”
Dustbowl Revival’s story started humbly. Nearly thirteen years ago Z. Lupetin, a Chicago native who attended college in Michigan came to L.A. to be a screenwriter, grew disillusioned with his job in advertising, and placed a hopeful ad on Craigslist. He sought to find fellow musicians who shared his roving love of Louis Armstrong, Bob Wills, Old Crow Medicine Show, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and the brass bands of New Orleans, but also wanted to write songs like Americana pioneers Wilco, Lucinda Williams and even Bruce Springsteen. There are still players in the group who responded to that initial odd quest. New talent on electric guitar, piano and more are joining in for 2021.
“Maybe we don’t know where this journey will take us or how long it will last,” acknowledges Lupetin, “That’s my take on the importance of what we try to do. Music elevates us, lifts us up, makes us change our minds, takes us out of our comfort zones. If just one person can be moved by just one song, that’s enough.”
Quinn DeVeaux & The Blue Beat Review / Quinn DeVeaux