The following is written by Katie Powderly and appeared in this week’s 72 Hours. She is a graphic designer and songwriter who currently resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Frederick. She has performed live on PBS and NPR and has criss-crossed the country touring from New York to Colorado and Texas to Tennessee. Her singing and harmonies have been likened to Gillian Welch (Isthmus, Madison, Wisconsin) and Gram Parsons (City Paper, Rochester, New York.) Katie is wrapping up recording her sophomore studio album with her electric Americana band The Unconditional Lovers. You can follow her on Twitter here and a performance of her song “Beneath Blue Light” is at the bottom of this article.
As any lover of music will know, some bands just don’t sound as captivating in person as they do in their studio recordings. Other bands make magic on stage, yet their studio albums lack the luster you long for after seeing them live.
And then there are the bands that bring it in both contexts.
Meet The Steel Wheels. They bring it. Once you see them, you will understand what it means to say it has been brought.
Belonging to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the band fuses folk, bluegrass and Americana into something special without being trite and something resonant without being precious.
Their 2017 release, “Wild as We Came Here,” marks the beginning of a plugged-in period for the formerly all-acoustic act. In addition to the less traditional, more electrified sounds, The Steel Wheels, composed of Trent Wagler (clawhammer banjo, guitar), Jay Lapp (guitars, dobro), Eric Brubaker (fiddle) and Brian Dickel (upright and now electric bass), are newly joined by drummer Kevin Garcia, known for his work with The Duhks. It’s a sound that suits them, a natural evolution into their own fully mature sound.
“Wild as We Came Here” hits higher heights than their previous releases, which cannot be solely attributed to their increasingly electrified, percussive sound. Perhaps it has something to do with introducing the perspective of an outside producer into the studio with them for the first time. Sam Kassirer, known for his work with Lake Street Dive and Josh Ritter, hosted the band as they holed up in his 18th-century farmhouse-turned-recording-studio in rural Maine for a week and a half to cut a record. Kassirer successfully captured the essence of the band, helping them, paradoxically, to sound more like themselves. In doing so, he helped The Steel Wheels to accomplish a maturity and sophistication in the recording process without adulterating or diminishing what they do best.
There is more intimacy and urgency in this record than in their previous efforts. Impeccably arranged, no note is chosen haphazardly. Each sound and sliver of silence has been created and curated with exacting precision and is delivered with the confidence and competence of a band operating in cohesion. The performances were perfection. As a recording, it is more reflective of and equal to the power inherent in The Steel Wheels’ live show. It stands poised to be their breakout album, given its ability to appeal to a vast audience by transcending the barriers of genre.
But as much as their current release is a must-listen, the real magic is seeing The Steel Wheels perform in person. Their seemingly effortless harmonies soar into the night and hang in the air above the room to linger, clinging to the ceiling above the audience for mere moments before dissipating into the firmament. There’s something very “going to church”-like about their shows, but without the preaching.
Perhaps their singing just feels otherworldly and therefore holy. It is legitimately awe-inspiring to be in the presence of people so proficient and passionate, who can make such beautiful sounds with just their voices and instruments made of wood and metal and string. It seems a sacred act. An offering.
Whatever “it” is, they’ve got it. It’s a paradox of casual profundity, of beauty that does not take itself too seriously. It is mixture of natural talent and something that must be earned by paying dues the old-fashioned way; that is, by spending the better part of the past decade touring doggedly across the country most nights out of the year.
Paying those dues is starting to pay off for The Steel Wheels. This summer, the band played the legendary Nashville venue The Station Inn for the first time, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance. The room was packed.
From his perch before the crowd, primary songwriter and lead singer Trent Wagler recounted the old adage about Nashville, which is that most of the time the bartender is a better guitar picker than the person onstage. Due to the saturation of talent in that town, it can be a daunting place to play, and a feat to win the attention of the audience.
But the room remained rapt. Not a word was spoken during their songs, save for a tipsy Northern woman seeing them for the first time, who, bless her heart, couldn’t stop herself from squealing and clapping along “with” the beat.
No matter where the road takes them, The Steel Wheels win over the hearts and ears of their audiences. That road will lead them back to Frederick to the stage at Weinberg Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. tonight, where they will temporarily turn the venue into a church, just for a night. Tickets are $30.