Bumper Jacksons headline Wheeler Opera House’s On the Rise series
IF YOU GO …
Who: Bumper Jacksons
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
The seven-piece Bumper Jacksons have a sponge-like ability to soak in far-flung influences and incorporate them into a rootsy Americana style that’s beginning to draw national attention.
The band, based in Washington, D.C., will headline the Wheeler Opera House’s On the Rise series Saturday night. The show marks the band’s Aspen debut – one of four tour stops in Colorado marking the band’s first performances in the mountain west.
“We’re definitely a high-energy roots band and we love drawing from a kind of different American tradition,” singer and bandleader Jess Eliot Myhre said in a phone interview from the road between Cleveland and Chicago. “From swing and blues to country and old-time and making some of those genres our own.”
Myhre and her bandmates are mining the past to craft a music of the future.
It began as what Myhre calls a “city-meets-country experiment” between her and banjo player Chris Ousley. The band has added an upright bassist, drummer and pedal steel player along with a trombone and trumpet as the sound has expanded.
The Bumper Jackson’s vibrant sound blends Americana, folk and pop along with strains of old bluegrass and country into a dance-friendly brew — all of it propelled by Myhre’s powerhouse jazz vocals. Even in the beginning, though, the band was experimenting with genre. Ousely came from a country and bluegrass tradition. Myhre was living in New Orleans at the time and immersing herself in jazz and swing styles. They had to find new ways of playing in order to find common ground between their interests.
“We were automatically blending sounds because of the limits of our instrumentation,” Myhre explained.
She lived in New Orleans for about a year, but it proved formative as the Bumper Jacksons project took shape. Joe Braun, of the Frenchmen Street stalwarts the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, took Myhre under his wing and guided her through the sounds of the city that birthed jazz.
In recent years, the buzzy band has become one of the most talked-about live acts out of the mid-Atlantic with wild shows around Washington and Baltimore. They’re on the road in support of a new album, “I’ve Never Met a Stranger.”
The album’s title track is a knee-slapping, boot-stomping sing-along with an infectious chorus (“I’ve never met a stranger/At the bottom of a bottle…”). It appears destined to sit alongside mountain town jukebox favorites like Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.”
“I’ve Never Met a Stranger” was born in the communal collaboration the band found at far-flung bluegrass festivals, where, as Myhre put it: “You come mostly to sit around and play around campfires, both with friends and complete strangers.”
They aimed to craft the kind of song you might pass around those campfires.
“We wanted to capture the sound of that experience, the feeling of that experience,” Myhre said.
The community that can build around a song, she noted, is growing more precious as we lose human connections to digital ones.
“I think it’s a really beautiful kind of connection to have with people, especially now in our social media-dominated way of communicating,” she said. “It’s lovely to be able to sit around and play tunes with people — sometimes you don’t know their names, but you’re sharing something.”
The video for the song has a less heady take on the idea, following the band in costume as they ride around on three-wheeler bikes playing together and joining crowds of bikers and parade-marchers in a succession of American cities. Which is to say that the Bumper Jacksons don’t take themselves too seriously. Their shows aim for a similar tone, offering up-tempo dance songs alongside some ballads and more contemplative moments.
“We want to bring the audience on a journey,” Myhre said.
Now in its second year at the Wheeler Opera House, the On the Rise series aims to showcase bands that you probably haven’t heard of yet, but that deserve your attention. The Bumper Jacksons fit the bill.
“One of the favorite parts of my job is discovering new musical talent,” Wheeler executive director Gena Buhler said this summer when the On the Rise lineup was announced, “and the fall series allows us to introduce some of my favorite new finds to the community.”
The Bumper Jacksons are hoping that this swing through Colorado will give them a foothold in the high country live-music scene.
“We still wake up every day surprised and grateful that we get to make art for a living,” Myhre said. “I don’t know how it happened. I feel like we were blessed by somebody’s fairy godmother along the way.”
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