By Jim Morrison
Thank the Wild West days of Craigslist for Dustbowl Revival.
Zach Lupetin had graduated from the University of Michigan with a fiction and screenwriting degree and moved to Los Angeles to get into the theater business. But he’d also been playing in bands since he was a teen and wanted to continue that hobby.
He knew no one in Los Angeles so he posted an online ad looking to attract a few players.
The result is Dustbowl Revival, perhaps the most genre-defying group touring the country today. The eight-player ensemble opens the three-day Coastal Virginia Bluegrass and Brew Festival at Hampton’s American Theatre on Jan. 25.
“We are a band that was magically put together from my Craigslist ad that I put online in some form about ten years ago,” he says from Los Angeles where the band is working up new songs and hoping to get into the studio in a couple of months. “It grew from there. Craigslist was the Wild West back then. You could find interesting people who wanted to get together and make music.”
“We’re a melting pot band,” he adds. “We come from all over the place.”
From places like California, New Hampshire, and Illinois. Lupetin grew up in Evanston with parents who went to Northwestern University and never left. He loved playing the blues and rock and roll and early folk music. His early Chicago bands were punk and alternative rock, but he soon branched out. His dad got him into the blues, but he also loved Wilco and Nirvana. He played in a band at Michigan that included players from the jazz school as well as rock bands.
“Eventually, I realized you have the power to create your own sound,” he says. “You don’t have to do what’s on the radio. At the end of my college time at Ann Arbor, that was kind of the precursor of what Dustbowl became. ”
When Dustbowl formed, band members introduced him to New Orleans funk and western swing and a host of other music. Rather than pick and choose, the band embraced all of it, as evidenced by the songs on their latest, “Dustbowl Revival,” which moves from blues to reggae to folk rock to funk to Americana. Keb Mo makes a guest vocal appearance. In addition to Lupetin, who plays guitar, harmonica, and kazoo, there’s fellow lead vocalist Liz Beebe, from New Hampshire who handles the ukulele and washboard. The rest of the band’s instrumentation includes bass, mandolin, fiddle, trombone, trumpet, and drums.
Lupetin’s degree didn’t go to waste. The skills inform his songwriting. “We are sort of always telling stories on stage,” he says. “I like the theatrical immediacy of being in the band.”
He has been in bands since he was 14, but only slowly slipped into music as a profession. “It’s always been something I’ve done, but you don’t think you do it professionally until you realize you’re doing it. Sort of having it happen.”
He says he often relies on his writing skills to create characters and narratives within a song, though it’s more like writing poetry than a screenplay. “Debtor’s Prison” off the recent album is one example. “It’s about a couple falling through the cracks. With the way our country deals with health care sometimes you can really fall through the cracks. It’s about a couple who fall in love and makes twins and then they owe the hospital $100,000. They are homeless and trying to figure out how to dig out of the hole. ”
Los Angeles, he adds, has a lot of homeless people and no one wants to talk about it. “Sometimes you write empathetically,” he says. “It’s not your story, but the story is all around you.”
Their records balance that storytelling with good, clean, foot-stomping fun. That attracted their most famous fan, Dick Van Dyke, the 93-year old variety star seen on the big screen this month dancing on a desk in “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Van Dyke saw them play a party years ago, says Lupetin, and showed up at a few concerts after that with his wife. On a whim, they emailed her asking if he’d be in a video. The first try didn’t work out, but the couple eventually invited the band to their house to film “Never Had to Go” with a smiling Van Dyke hoofing it up. The video has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube.
“He’s a charming guy,” Lupetin says. “He had more energy than all of us combined.”
I saw Dustbowl Revival at the Red Wing Roots Festival a couple of summers ago and they turned a late-night set into a frenzied dance party. Lupetin says he enjoys how the band can fit their set to the setting.
“We’ve been around long enough now that we can kind of shapeshift our sound depending on where we are,” he says. “There are times when we play theaters in more hushed listening room places. We’re not going to play the punk dance party set necessarily, but we try to always get people involved and a little rowdy. A lot of times my favorite shows are where we can play with a lot of dynamics. We knock it out with the horns and then play some quieter darker, story songs. When we’re getting loud and getting people dancing, they aren’t listening to the lyrics. Whereas, if I can bring it down a bit, people are actually listening. That’s important for me as a writer. We’ve been blessed that the festival circuit in the folk world has become more open-minded to unclassifiable hybrid bands like us.”
When the band first started, Lupetin was doing the booking. Folk festivals then weren’t much interested in a band with drums and a trombone. Apparently, they weren’t on Craigslist. But that’s evolved. “A lot of folk and bluegrass festivals and series are used to bands pushing what the music is,” he says. “Now, it’s more of an interesting exotic element.”
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Coastal Virginia Bluegrass and Brew Festival