Horseshoes & Hand Grenades serve up refreshing jolt of Wisco-grass
Saturday evening marked a first for Wisconsin's own Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, a category-defying band that fuses traditional Americana, folk and bluegrass with a new-school attitude and definitively Midwestern vibe.
They played their very first Summerfest headliner set at the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage, filling the air with cigarette and whiskey-lubed vocals accompanied by fiddle, harmonica, banjo and guitar.
Members of the five-man band include native Milwaukeeans David (Davey) Lynch (harmonica, accordion) and Sam Odin (bass) along with Wisconsinites Russell Pedersen (banjo, fiddle), Adam Greuel (guitar, dobro) and Collin Mettelka (fiddle, mandolin), all accomplished musicians whose synergy as a band became the contagious medium for a rolicking, toe-tapping smorgasbord of delights.
The evening kicked off as the band gathered around the hand-grenade-studded mic in traditional bluegrass style. They began with "Fly to the Moon," an upbeat, twang-filled drinking song that easily set the mood for the evening, bringing the crowd to its feet (and onto the bleachers) and sending a whorl of energy flowing through the venue.
From there, the scent of marijuana filled the air as the band broke into their second and third songs. And the crowd began to loosen. Hips swayed and toes tapped. And then Greuel greeted the crowd: "Feels great to be back here in Milwaukee. Happy Summerfest!" a move that elicited a roar of cheering.
The evening was filled with a combination of graceful, emotive performances of songs like "River High" and "Imperfection," catchy ditties like "Sugar in the Wine," and rip-roaring dance numbers like "The Greater Association."
At one point Lynch, wearing an embroidered Green Bay Packers bowling shirt, pulled out his accordion, leading the band into a joyful Talking Heads cover, "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," a song which saw no objection to being re-imagined as a folksy zydeco number. Odin and Greuel took on the lyrics with pizazz, even donning David Byrne-esque facial expressions, intonation and inflection that – along with the performers' face-spanning grins – only served to deliver sheer joy to the hungry audience.
"You can get dumped," Greuel interjected during a break between songs. "You can get speeding tickets by air surveillance. You can burn yourself on mac and cheese. A lot of things can happen in life. But music, it brings people together and makes things better."
And that theme was not lost on the audience.
Of the multitude of compliments one could bestow upon the members of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, it seems the most salient is the dynamic among the band members. Not only do they flow seamlessly from one song to another, they deftly trade moments in the spotlight and on stage, sharing smiles and often spritely dances and creating a contagious energy that literally fills the room as it transfers from performer to audience.
During "Wisconsin Water," a song from the band's 2013 release "Old Town," members of the crowd held up theirs cans of Coors and swayed to the music as fiddle and harmonica wove in and out of Greuel and Pederson's lyrics. When the song ended, Greuel lifted his beer to the crowd, saying "It's good to be home. Cheers!"
In addition to classics, the band also played a song or two from their forthcoming album, which will be released this fall. The album, tentatively called "The Ode" was recorded in just one week at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. And it will be rolled out in conjunction with the band's tour with Montana-based bluegrass band, the Kitchen Dwellers.
High points of the evening included an a capella performance of "The Rattlin' Bog," a traditional Irish cumulative song in which each verse builds on the next. And Horseshoes took it and ran with it.
The crowd stomped and the band members sang, faces flushing from pink to red as the verses grew faster and faster, to the point where there were no longer lyrics, only stomping, grinning and auctioneer-like chanting.
Then came the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon," during which each band member took a round, riffing on his respective instrument, before coming together in a wild orgy of bluegrassian bliss.
And when Gruel addressed the audience, exclaiming, "You guys kick ass. This is awesome," it seemed that the only appropriate response from the crowd should have been: "No really. YOU GUYS kick ass."
Things wrapped up with a bang. First, Greuel metaphorically pulled the audience aside, letting them know they were in on something special."There's probably no better place to announce something like this," he said. "I'm stoked as hell to say this, but we have the honor and the pleasure to play at The Pabst Theatre on New Year's Eve."
And the audience roared. Meanwhile, band members passed around a bottle of Tully, each one taking a slug before breaking into a rowdy Milwaukee-fied version of "Whiskey," featuring lines like "I love Milwaukee Town" and "I love Summerfest."
It was 11:49 p.m. by the time the band walked off the stage, inciting the crowd to an ear-filling round of stomping and whooping that ceased only as Greuel came back to the stage accompanied by his band mates as well as Ryan Ogburn, a Milwaukee musician currently touring with Dead Horses.
"Freakin' Wisconsin," Greuel exclaimed. "For real man. It's one of those speechless moments. It's been an awesome night."
The encore included two more songs: "We're All in This Together" by Old Crow Medicine Show and "Get Down To It." And the former captured the tone of the evening.
Harmonies had been spot-on all night. But, at this juncture, as the band's voices blended, there was a palpable feeling, almost prophetic, that no matter who you were, or why you were there, you were part of something bigger. Brighter. Better.
And, in the end, that's really all you can ask for from a concert.
"Fly to the Moon"
"This Must Be The Place" (Talking Heads cover)
"Old Man and Me"
"Stuck on Your Mind"
"St. Croix Hills""
"The Greater Association"
"Rhiannon" (Fleetwood Mac cover)
"Sugar in the Wine"
"Make One Today"
"The Rattlin' Bog"
"Down the Road"
"Short but Sweet"
"We're All in This Together" (Old Crow Medicine Show cover)
"Get Down To It"
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