matty day | liver killers | oct. 2016
Some sparkling-watered-down version of bluegrass got popular a few years ago — basically indie rock minus drums, plus banjo — but it seems people have moved on. Nice thing about that, is it separates the lifers from the bandwagon bands.
Falling firmly in the former are brothers Augie Barnhart and Roelke Thunderbolt — acoustic guitarist and upright bassist, respectively, of the Liver Killers — who grew up instilled with all kinds of country music. Their grandparents Augie and Evie Voss could have made a fine career as professional country-bluegrass musicians but instead chose to nobly devote their lives to raising a family. Still, Augie and Evie continued to thrill crowds around Wisconsin, with daughter Donna Mae catching the country contagion.
Later, Donna Mae's sons were all but born with guitars in their hands. Roelke and Augie started playing music very early, already gigging in bars in their early teens. They always jammed and performed with their grandparents and mom, though, up through the end of the late, elder Augie's life.
For a couple of guys born well north of Kentucky, Roelke and Augie couldn't possibly have a more credible country/bluegrass background. They're still playing the hillbilly songs their grandparents taught them, plus a few of the polkas, too.
And they've never stopped gigging. Augie had an outstanding run with jam savants The Sandwich Factory, before playing primarily in garage-rockabilly band Muddy Udders with Roelke and yours truly (a word on us later) beginning in 2006.
Augie'd always had a guitar pickin' partner in Pat Schorr, going back to before Schorr joined swing-funk group Shaker and the Egg. As The Pat & Augie Show, the two pushed the limits of what an acoustic duo could do. Roelke joined the mix after getting an upright bass, learning the difficult instrument by jamming along to Hank Williams records, and in 2012, the Liver Killers came alive.
I've always been a fan, but I admit, at first it was physically tough for me to watch the band. Having played weeks' worth of music with Roelke and Augie in MU, but rarely having seen them play when I wasn't onstage with them, it was like my very muscles were confused by not jamming along. But as they became more established, and especially as they expanded their lineup, experimenting with banjo, fiddle and mandolin players, the Liver Killers experience became wholly unique.
This was aided by the clever and catchy songs they kept rolling out. Some songs had been around since the Sandwich Factory days, some were co-written with friend Tyson Kratz, but all are infectious and leave plenty of room for live improvisation.
Securing the services of “Banjo Dan” Schrei of the PBR (Past Blue Rhythm) Bluegrass Band and with their reputation rising, the Liver Killers got to test their material (“skills, too”) before tons of people, earning prestigious performances on the Wisconsin festival circuit: Jackpine, Flatrock, Moon Dance, Jam for Jam, Whatchyauptoo, Down on the Farm, the Country Fling and lots more.
At the end of last August, capping off their biggest summer yet, Liver Killers treated fans to their debut album, “World Famous,” recorded at Appleton's Rock Garden Studio with Marc Golde. For the sessions they brought in LKs veterans Nate Sitzman on mandolin and Heather Lewin on fiddle and vocals, guest pianist Alex Drossart, and tons of beer and booze, of course. With Golde, these purveyors of “blue-faced shit-grass” managed to make an album that matches the intense energy and fun of their live show, but in higher fidelity. Here are my track-by-track notes:
This song has been around almost as long as those little buggers have been terrorizing our trees! When he wrote this, Augie's satirical bent also took aim at the scourge that was “Y2K” — six or seven years after it had harmlessly passed. Schrei's banjo really shines on this number, and listening on headphones reveals a whole lot of wild background hollers and whispers.
“Jesus Is Just a Bit”
Where first songs introduce us to an album, with track two we can really get into it. Here, the second track sets something of a formula for the album, where a particularly raucous song's followed by a chance to catch a breath. Really nice and melodic vibe on this one. I'm still a bit confused by its lyrics, and that's saying something on this album.
“I'm Drinkin' Beer”
This one's sort of a mission statement for the band with what it represents: alcohol approval, wild vocals and verbal sound effects and lyrics that cover nothing to everything. It could've been called “Roger Miller High Life.” Great keys, Dro.
Their method of madness, followed by melody, continues to lull the listener in. Great mandolin and fiddle playing and vocal harmonies on this one. “Dancin' with my darlin'” is an undeniably nice line.
Augie and Pat worked this one up while ruminating on Grandma Evie's game-changing Busch Light can art wisdom. Great chord progression, playful lead vocals from Augie and bizarre, boozy, disorienting lyrics.
A live favorite, with castanets for added atmosphere. The album's formula breaks here; instead of a mellow melody, we get a minor-key groove, drawing us further into the delirium with lyrics as odd as their delivery. A consistent vocal response is about all that keeps things grounded. It's enough to make a sober man slur.
“200 Pound Patty”
Consider the vinyl flip a chance to regain your footing, because once the needle drops on the record's second side we're right back off to the races. White-hot banjo cuts through, yanking you into what might be the album's most rippin' and hilarious song.
“Few at the Table”
“Beer, wife and the kid” is a great table setting, isn't it? It appears we've been granted a mellow intermission after all … nope. Sudden explosion into an impressive, stacked-harmony stream of rural randomness, with some Hasil Adkins-esque backup vocals to boot.
Another great Augie chord progression, with an excellent lead guitar/mandolin part and a catchy “la-di-da-di-di-da” vocal hook. The Daug's relaxed vocal delivery recalls British psychedelia, and Schorr's harmonies bring nice movement. A real groover.
It appears things are getting a bit back onto the traditional track to close things out. More great Lewin harmonies — her and Schorr's voices make a great blend. Not sure if it's some Pavlovian thing, but I suddenly craved a beer on this one, well before 5 o'clock.
Deception! The album would assuredly not swing more straightforward for its finish.
This one's my jam. While they've got a terrific sense of history of country music, what makes the Liver Killers so unique are the unexpected influences they infuse into bluegrass. Here, I hear Montreal thrashers Demon's Claws, with its great surf guitar lines and urgent lead vocals.
This song, and especially its ending, is outrageously unhinged, even in the context of this wild set. How Marc Golde got through mixing this track with any remaining shred of sanity is beyond me. There's no following this song. Album, over.
Bluegrass can get a bit joyless and boring to me, but not these guys. Liver Killers are great. They've been blowing minds for a while now, breaking all kinds of rules and probably pissing off purists, but entertaining anyone with a sense of fun. Pick up “World Famous” on vinyl/digital download at any of their next shows; full schedule available at TheLiverKillers.com.
Forgive this bit of indulgence, but maybe this can set the record straight, since we weren't crazy about a recent article saying that we'd “dissolved.” Sounds painful!
First, the worst thing about writing on local music, since I can't rightly write about my own bands, is that I never get a chance to gush about my bandmates. Other than shout-outs to Augie's Wednesday night weekly open jam at Frets, I've never really gotten to glorify these ultra-talented guys who've been downright brotherly to me.
Muddy Udders celebrated our 10-year anniversary this year with … not much. We had a blast playing for a friend's wedding in August, but otherwise, it's been radio silence since last December. We're still tight, but especially in retrospect, we needed some time to work on other things. The three of us are pals for life and proud of everything we've done and are currently doing. Where we go from here, we'll just have to keep you posted. Thanks!
-Band photo courtesy DeWook
-Album art by Matt DeWane
Matty's written about local music since 2012. He currently performs with J-Council, the Priggs, the Foamers?, Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae. He wants to write nice things about your band! E-mail: LemmyThru@gmail.com | Twitter: @PollutedMindset