It’s Friday night, and on one end of Pearl Street, megachurch televangelist Joel Osteen is saving souls at a packed Times Union Center; on the other end, Eastbound Jesus are drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and getting ready to testify onstage at Jillian’s. “Maybe everyone will think we’re an offshoot band,” a sort of Osteen afterparty, jokes drummer Carl Anderson. “When everyone gets out of there they’ll come down here.”
Were this to happen, the wayward believer would be treated to a very different kind of gospel, as told by the Greenwich-based sextet, who recently ranked among the area’s top country bands in the Metroland readers’ poll. According to “The Ballad of Eastbound Jesus,” a tune from the band’s debut Greatest Hits Vol. 1, the messiah hath returned, but he’s not so pleased about what’s being carried out in his name.
“We kept picturing Jesus in a T-shirt and bluejeans, hitchhiking, maybe getting picked up by the police,” explains principal songwriter and vocalist Adam Brockway. “[We] pretty much developed it into this concept of Jesus coming to America because there’s all this chaos in the Middle East. But when he gets here he realizes everyone is hating on everyone else and using him [to justify it].” Each verse features some zealot barking in Jesus’ face about homosexuality, abortion or our black president. Fed up, Jesus sticks out his thumb and heads back home to the East.
They’re working on a sequel, they say, “Spacebound Jesus,” where the savior is forced to flee the planet, but it didn’t make the cut for Holy Smokes, the band’s new record. This is the second full-length Eastbound Jesus have released in their first year as a band, but only the latest example of the group’s incredible momentum. Last summer, they put their name on the map by winning the SPAC battle of the bands, earning the recording time they used to start Holy Smokes, and have since left a number of sweaty, beer-soaked gigs in their wake. Last month, they shared the stage with moe. offshoot Floodwood, and will be returning to Jillian’s in May with kindred spirits the Felice Brothers. In the meantime, the group continue to log long (and sometimes cold) hours in a barn in Greenwich, where they first huddled around a wood stove in the fall of 2010 to write their first couple of tunes, a place that both inspires creativity and connects them to the rural upstate culture they proudly represent.
“Americana” is a genre that gets bandied about whenever there’s a group dressed in flannel shirts, picking simple songs on acoustic guitars and maybe a banjo. But, other than a vague sense of rural nostalgia, found as well in the synonym “roots music,” the designation doesn’t do much to describe the way bands actually sound. It’s the most common title Eastbound Jesus get stuck with, but it becomes meaningful only in light of the bluegrass, country, rock and even punk influences that lie below the surface.
“Bluegrass Today wrote up a cool thing about how young people today are just as likely to pick up a banjo as a guitar,” says Anderson, whose brother Luke did just that a few years back. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to play what you think bluegrass would be.” Luke Anderson did use the instrument and some basic clawhammer technique to start a traditional bluegrass group, the Upchuck Ramblers, with EBJ bassist Dave Wright and lap steel guitarist Zack Infante, but the approach, which has carried over into Eastbound Jesus, was never in the purist vein.
“When we say we play bluegrass,” says Wright, “people say, ‘Oh, you don’t have circle-picking banjo and have drums and electric guitar.’ We’re not playing straight Flatt and Scruggs tunes; we just like that vibe.” The sound is certainly rawer and rowdier than those standard bearers of bluegrass, which would confuse listeners who are unfamiliar with bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett or Felice Brothers—a whole generation of young “Americana” artists who’ve looked way back in order to move forward.
Most of the members of Eastbound Jesus are self-taught on their instruments and have spent time in bar bands, jam bands and even pop-punk bands before arriving at the sound they started to forge at the end of 2010. When all the aforementioned projects disbanded that summer, Carl Anderson ordered a “piece of garbage” snare drum on eBay and called Brockway: “I’ve got a drum kit—kinda—wanna jam out in the shop?” Soon, a bona fide band of drinking buddies had assembled around the woodstove on minus-14-degree nights to work out group vocal harmonies, exorcise heartbreak and sing tribute to the finer things in life: pickup trucks, scrambled eggs, Marlboro reds and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The lineup was complete later that spring with the addition of lead guitarist Dylan Robinson. If anything, the band’s lack of virtuosity and ad-hoc approach to songwriting has allowed the songs themselves to emerge as the band’s lead instrument.
“The first album’s pretty straightforward and has much more of a bluegrass vibe,” says Luke Anderson of the record the group released just a couple months into its existence. “But there are a few songs that start to step into what we have on this album, ‘Pipedreams’ and ‘Ghostown.’” The band recorded a Western-pastiche music video for the latter in an 18th-century house the Anderson brothers were renovating with their father’s company, and it was on the merits of this fast-picking stomp that the band won the 2011 Saratoga Performing Arts Center battle of the bands. After that, Luke Anderson says, “people said, ‘Let’s give these guys a chance.’”
First place earned them recording time at a studio in Duanesburg, which they used through September before the trouble of travel encouraged them to book a weekend at Edie Road Recording Studio, just down the road from their practice space. At home in the old dairy barn, they were able to knock out the rest of the group-penned tunes with engineer Chris Robeson, dabbling in everything from high-octane blugrass on the title track to love ballad “Lay Me Down” and sepia-toned anthem “Time Wasting,” reminiscent of the Band. In January, Eastbound Jesus celebrated the release of Holy Smokes with a party at Putnam Den.
The fact that Eastbound Jesus are becoming recognized as a “country” band (a good one, at that) poses a similar categorical difficulty as their bluegrass influence. As Carl Anderson says, “If I went to 9 out of 10 people and said we’re a country band, immediately what will pop into their head is what’s on 107.7,” contemporary commercial country music, that is.
The band don’t attempt to hide their contempt for what passes as country music today. “Brad Paisley’s songs are just ridiculous; they’re so stupid,” says Brockway, who spent some time in Nashville trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, quickly becoming disillusioned with the factory-style star machine the town has become. “The people who are writing that good, down-home country music are not getting noticed because that’s not what the industry wants. You go to some bar on some backstreet of Nashville and you see this guy who can rip on the guitar and can sing. No one’s ever heard of him and no one ever will.”
“It’s ‘where the next Johnny Cash will never be found,’” says Luke Anderson, quoting Brockway’s lyric to the song “Gonna Go Down.” A working-class rallying cry that condemns police aggression, war-hungry politicians and the New Jersey yuppies who crowd choice Greenwich fishing holes, the song devotes one verse to the “Toby Keith Urbans” who have driven legends like Willie Nelson out of the country mainstream, “’cause today being real don’t get you too far.” Anderson takes pride in the title, though, because to him country music is Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, outlaw country from the ’60s and ’70s. Wright adds Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and John Hiatt to the same list, effectively skipping a generation to get back to when mainstream country music was “real.” And Carl Anderson adds younger artists like Ryan Bingham, Hayes Carll and Drive By Truckers to the short list of country acts they’d be proud to find company with, arguing that country music has had to steal a page from the punk-rock playbook to regain its vitality (look no further than Hank Williams III).
Wright, though, proposes a different solution to the genre problem. “You always hear stories about Lynyrd Skynyrd sweating their balls off in the South in the summer—can’t play their instruments because it’s too humid. Last winter we were playing in a barn that was about zero, maybe 10 degrees. It’s the complete opposite but we’re trying to do the same thing.”
“Northern rock,” the band are inclined to call it, a style that has more to do with the experience of living in a small upstate town than the diverse musical influences behind it all. It’s a tag that earns its authenticity not by adhering to tradition or by making any fundamental innovations but by sonically expressing the lifestyle of a certain group of people at a certain point in time—the same way “country,” “bluegrass” and “Southern rock” did.
“We’re all about representing where we’re from and what comes out of that,” Wright says, to which everyone on Pearl Street might reply: Hallelujah.
Tune in to 97.7 WEXT today (Thursday) at 3 PM for a special Local 518 broadcast from the Metroland offices, featuring Eastbound Jesus in conversation with music editor Josh Potter.