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Free Peoples

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

One-time electric rockers are finding all good reasons to turn to acoustic instruments these days. There is the challenge of playing unamplified music. There is the lower volume and enhanced intimacy. There is the oft-cited “O Brother” factor – the expanding audience for bluegrass and old-time folk that has followed the success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. And there is the simple affection for acoustic music.

For the Free Peoples, it was the healing properties of the music.

Mike DiPirro, Tim Sawyer and Johnny Downey had been playing in a rock-pop band, Buzz, in the San Francisco area. At one gig some two-and-a-half years ago, they saw their friend Vern in the audience. The band knew that Vern was battling cancer at the time; they also knew Vern was a fan of folk and bluegrass sounds. So the band made some musical adjustments to their set for the night, turning from electric rock to acoustic folk, in tribute to their friend.

“I felt that music was really uplifting,” said bassist DiPirro. “He had come to a gig, had just finished chemo, and we were catering to him.”

The effects were powerful. Vern’s cancer is currently in remission. (Though there has been no clinical proof of the healing effects of the bluegrass music.) And the members of Buzz had discovered a new musical passion.

“We had fun playing it,” said the 31-year-old DiPirro. “So we decided to write music along that line. What started as a dedication to a friend turned into our path. When I think about it, it’s a pretty beautiful thing, a beautiful way to come to this music.”

The former Buzz band wasn’t leaping into completely unknown territory, but it was a good-sized jump nonetheless. DiPirro, for instance, had never played stand-up bass in a band before; his experience on the instrument was limited to the classical lessons he had taken a couple of years earlier. (On tour, DiPirro usually plays the Martin bass, an acoustic bass guitar, for logistical reasons.)

“We both had kind of a passive affinity for bluegrass,” said DiPirro, of himself and Free Peoples singer-guitarist Tim Sawyer, who had been the lead singer of Buzz. “We never really played that kind of music, because we were always doing other kinds of music. Folk music for me is the root of all music. Except for maybe punk and speed metal.”

The new path is turning out to be fruitful for Free Peoples. The group – now a four-piece, with the addition of drummer Bradley Leach to the original trio of DiPirro, Sawyer and guitarist Downer – has toured all over the West Coast and Colorado over the past two years. Their first national tour is scheduled for October. They have played the High Sierra Music Festival, and competed in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition. DiPirro estimated that Free Peoples now occupies about three-quarters of the members’ professional attention, with the rest reserved for various side projects.

The band’s current tour of Colorado brings them to Aspen for two shows on Sunday, July 20: a noon-to-3 p.m. gig on top of Aspen Mountain as part of the Bluegrass Sundays series, and later that night at the Double Diamond.

Free Peoples is still a work in progress. Leach was added on drums six months ago, as the band began to discover that their club gigs required more volume and rhythmic punch. And David Phillips, who plays pedal steel, dobro and Weissenborn guitar, is on the verge of becoming a full-time member of the group.

“He’s like the fifth Beatle. He’s the fifth People,” said DiPirro, noting that the current tour will likely be the last one without Phillips. “He’s a who’s who in the Bay area.”

But while Free Peoples hashes out its sound, it is still making memorable music. The band’s first album, a self-titled disc released last year, is fully satisfying. The nine original songs on “Free Peoples” are a refreshing mix of bluegrass, swing and jazz, with hints of folk, blues and even gospel. And the music sounds so natural, no one would ever guess that the musicians had hardly played acoustic music at the time of its recording.

Fifth Peoples Phillips is among the handful of guests on the album, as are some pickers with looser ties to the band. Banjo great Tony Trischka contributes to three tracks, despite the fact that no one in the band knew him before the album was recorded. But “Free Peoples” producer Mark Keaton knew Trischka, and knew that the banjoist was in town during the recording sessions.

“Tony happened to have been in town,” said DiPirro. “He had a layover at the airport. Tim grabbed him from the airport, brought him to the studio, and then brought him back to the airport.” Also on the album is Tom Rozum, a highly regarded Oakland mandolinist.

Free Peoples is well into making their second CD. They have been recording at Prairie Sun studios, on a sprawling old chicken farm in Cotati, in California’s Sonoma County. Tentatively due for release in early October, the second, as yet untitled, recording should reflect a more developed band. Bill Evans – a banjoist who DiPirro calls “Tony Trischka’s West Coast counterpart” – is on the album. The CD will also include a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Nobody Knows.” But apart from the altered guest list and the introduction of a cover tune, the real difference is in the direction of the band.

“Now we have Bradley on drums. So it’s a whole other thing,” said DiPirro. “It’s little more rocking, a little more honky-tonking at times. It’s more dynamic. It’s not as tame. The first record has some oats to it, but this one is rocking.

“And lately, we’ve been stretching the songs out more to get more of the jazz influence into it – Coltrane, Miles Davis, the Headhunters, Django Reinhardt. And we always have the Grateful Dead in our minds and in our hearts. But we try to make it not be obvious in the music.”

DiPirro cautions against labeling Free Peoples a bluegrass band. “We’re still on the fringe. We don’t call ourselves a bluegrass band. That would be an offense to the pure bluegrass people,” he said.

DiPirro was raised in Bergen County, N.J., in a musical environment. “I grew up in a Partridge kind of family,” he said. “We all played different instruments, and we’d go down in the basement and jam together.”

But DiPirro’s influences were far harder than the Partridge Family. DiPirro was a fan of Iron Maiden, Motley Crüe and the like. When he was 19, a friend persuaded him to check out Southern California; DiPirro has been a Californian ever since.

A San Francisco resident for several years, DiPirro has become a part of the extended Grateful Dead family. Last summer, he toured with the Trichromes, a rock and blues project of Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. He has hopes that the Trichromes will be an ongoing band.

But meanwhile, DiPirro has found a home with acoustic music, and a familylike atmosphere in Free Peoples. “It’s a very special project for us,” he said. “It’s very collaborative. We all put our two cents into it. It takes all four of us to finish off the sound.

“The music, the personalities, the interest, the love – the aesthetic is very high because of all of that. We’re in this together. And people always say they see that, the respect for each other onstage.”


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