Last year, S.B.’s Johnny Irion launched his U.S. Elevator project to craft something relatively rare in this day and age: a consummate rock ’n’ roll album. With a super strong set of songs and a faithfully analog production process, the eponymous debut was a mission accomplished, with Rolling Stone and Mojo accolades to boot. With a Lobero Theatre show lined up Saturday, June 18, at 8 p.m. with Berkley Hart opening, and more gigs to come, the people of S.B. have caught on to U.S. Elevator’s special qualities, lifting its music to ever-higher vantage points.
Self-assured though the music is, its reception out in the world of listenership was something of a doubtful premise at first. In a present-day market where streaming services are the status quo, an album so lovingly honed with such solid songs seemed almost an aberration, even a lost cause, what with many other artists privileging followers and likes far more than the elusively well-crafted album. “As an artist and having a label, I think the album [format] is dying … and rock ‘n’ roll has become fucking Wall Street,” said Irion, who runs a record label with his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and frequently visits Warbler Records & Goods. The realization of the usual folk singer’s rock album dream was a way of keeping the fire lit and preserving a sense of classic, enduring songs. “To my extent, good songwriting is: Is this something I could sit in a room and play with Willie Nelson and Pete Seeger? Is this something you can hang your hat on? I’m more concerned about crafting the songs than my Twitter feed, but maybe I should be more concerned about my Twitter feed,” he said.
But his statement exemplifies, in a way, what makes U.S. Elevator stand out, in their preferring to emphasize quality song cultivation over curating a quantity of digital dedicators. The band is very much making rock for the people in an organic fashion, both in its co-op style lineup and in its personable gigs; it’s not just Irion’s voice and songwriting that continues to draw comparisons to ’60s greats. There is an outwardly genuine spirit to the band, and its lineup is a somewhat open-ended family, with members embarking on and off the Elevator on the various floors of its journey; it is, like its founder, easygoing, openhearted, fluid. “U.S. Elevator is a vibe,” Irion said.
And it’s by word-of-mouth and personable connections that the vibes have thrived locally. Steadily but surely, the album is finding a home in the town that birthed it, with U.S. Elevator’s songs on Montecito life and Californian blues landing the group residencies at venues such as Seven Bar and Kitchen and attracting supporters from across town, including a spontaneous jam with members of Depeche Mode, who, unbeknownst to Irion were in attendance at a recent secret gig. Irion expressed his immense gratitude to all the other Santa Barbara souls who have helped the band along. “We’re extremely lucky, and I’m very grateful to all the people who’ve supported it,” Irion said. He feels S.B. has an especially great and supportive feel, which “could be an incredible breeding ground for a lot more artists.”
What’s more, Irion and Guthrie have found themselves using their music to support bigger causes, with both singing “This Land Is Your Land” (penned by Guthrie’s grandfather) at Bernie Sanders’s SBCC rally on May 28. “I am his folk singer. I really believe he started something, and even if he doesn’t become president, he’s a leader. When you look at people who have made history as leaders, they’re not usually presidents. This country is going to move because the people want it to move,” said Guthrie, who is also a part of the U.S. Elevator collective. In this context, the ’60s-tinged revolutionary rock aspects of U.S. Elevator’s music are suddenly very prescient, and their rock ideals, both in form and practice, feel cyclically relevant again.
So even amid an uncertain music-business market and an uncertainly shifting national conscience, the strength of U.S. Elevator’s rock has continued to solidify, and the support continues to grow.
Sings Like Hell presents U.S. Elevator and Berkley Hart Saturday, June 18, at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and more information, call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com. Check out U.S. Elevator’s new video for “Pineapple Express,” performed at the Troubadour in L.A.