BACK TO THEIR ROOTS: This has been a great, if somewhat rough and tumbling, year for Poor Man’s Whiskey, who will play on Saturday, October 24, at 9 p.m at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). Now 15 years into their career, the Isla Vista and Bay Area–based bluegrass/jam-rock band is enjoying a “wild ride” of a time, with ups and downs aplenty, says singing, keyboarding, banjoing harmonica man Josh Brough. The year has brought a career highlight in a sold-out performance at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, but also some difficult personnel shifts as parenthood has moved into the picture.
This year also sees the band debuting their newest cover record in their bluegrass-ified rendition of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Poor Man’s Whiskey won worldwide acclaim with Darkside of the Moonshine, an Appalachian take on Pink Floyd’s psychedelic ’70s masterpiece, which they have now performed across the globe, sometimes costumed as characters from The Wizard of Oz — they’re a wild and whimsical bunch, for sure.
Also this year, the band was inspired to lend their freewheeling spirit to Simon’s consummately crafted and joyful work, which Brough called “an iconic album” near and dear to the Whiskey boys’ hearts. He hopes to tour their folky performances of Dark Side and Graceland to the origins of folk music itself, upon the emerald isles of Ireland and England, and hints that one day they make take on a bluegrass Sgt. Pepper. “I think the idea of taking on any type of song that’s ever been written with these acoustic instruments is a challenge, and it’s a fun thing to do,” he said.
Fun is certainly a core value for the Poor Man’s Whiskey crew, who started as an Isla Vista jam band. “Our roots are in Isla Vista,” Brough said, reminiscing on the days when the band would soundtrack spontaneous keg parties. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and they’re known to take the stage in “circus show”–type performances with outlandish costumes or shirtless/short-shorts ensembles. Though they’re a little older now — “We’ve toned it down a bit,” Brough admitted — coming home reawakens that festive spirit they fostered in I.V. so many years ago. “It’s become a biannual tradition where it seems more like a college reunion of sorts; it’s packed, and it’s fun,” he said. “I just wish I could bottle up the time because I see so many friends I haven’t seen in so long; it’s almost sad leaving.”
Well, Josh, you will always have a second home here. Feel free to play well into the night on Saturday. And you, dear reader — feel free to join them. It’ll be a rollicking good time.
THOUGHTS ON SUFJAN: Also on Saturday, October 24, 8 p.m., Sufjan Stevens plays at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). I can’t help but recall the time some friends and I formed a one-off seven- or eight-piece band (funny thing, memory) named The Shredded Wheaties, assembled to perform a rendition of Sufjan’s “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” for a DP Jazz Choir fundraiser way back when. We brought the house down, but none of us really keep in touch anymore. It’s a memory now.
The memory inspires a nostalgia overdrive, for no one crafts songs of nostalgia and its associated woes like Stevens. His postcard-esque soundscapes and lyrics evoke bygone times and the delicate sorrows of childhood. His latest, Carrie & Lowell, explores new lyrical territory with further meditations on grief and spirituality. One wonders if he will wear those magnificent (or megalomaniacal?) bird wings he donned for his Illinois tour, although such flamboyance seems a little strange for such weighty new material. All things go, all things go, even fun costumes.