An American roots orchestra with its ‘spiritual bone’ in Venice, Dustbowl Revival celebrates growing popularity and a new album with a concert at McCabes’s

By Bliss Bowen

A leader of L.A.’s string band renaissance, Dustbowl Revival has graduated from free farmers market  shows to prime festival gigs Photo by Becca Murray 

A leader of L.A.’s string band renaissance, Dustbowl Revival has graduated from free farmers market
shows to prime festival gigs
Photo by Becca Murray

No question, Dustbowl Revival is bandleader Zach Lupetin’s baby.

He came to Los Angeles from Chicago with the intent of launching a “roots orchestra,” and since early 2008 he’s been shrewdly steering the exuberant ensemble from free performances at farmers markets and dive bars to better-dressed swing dances and acoustic listening rooms to, more recently, ticketed performances at prime festivals and theaters.

En route, Dustbowl Revival became a key leader of L.A.’s string-band renaissance and picked up a rep for must-see performances that swing from Saturday night on Bourbon Street to Sunday morning tent revivals somewhere between Memphis and Louisville.

Lately, Lupetin and his seven bandmates have been crisscrossing the States and Europe promoting “With a Lampshade On,” the band’s fourth album and first live recording.

Make that mostly live.

“A live album is usually just a rehash of already recorded songs in a live setting,” Lupetin says, pointing out that the album’s comprised of new material. “We wanted to present the best of what we do in an environment that’s most conducive for people hearing and enjoying our music, which is in a live setting. The three tracks we did in the studio in New York were like being live. We’re playing mostly all together and wanted to have a little more controlled environment than [chuckles] in a hall of screaming people.

“The intent was to make an album that sounded present. Just us doing our thing, not a bunch of studio gimmicks. Obviously there are certain things you do to sweeten the sound, but mostly this is how we sound in a roomful of people.”

Lupetin, who describes himself as “a diehard Westsider,” jokes that “Venice is like the spiritual bone” of the band, whose members are scattered around town. He is the main motivator and primary composer, but in true bohemian fashion, the full band pitches in with eclectic arrangement ideas.

“I usually write most of the tunes lyrically, and then I’ll bring the structure of the song and the band will flesh it out and create the full song as it is on the stage,” Lupetin says. “And then there are certain tunes on the record like ‘Cherokee Shuffle’ and ‘Old Joe Clark’ that are in the more traditional public domain realm; we sort of curate certain songs, write lyrics to them and add a different twist. ‘Whiskey in the Well’ is also like that. It’s been done in various ways — as a gospel song, a swing song, a blues song.”

He wrote “Doubling Down on You” to showcase frontwoman Liz Beebe’s range and bold delivery, and to also indulge his passion for “female soul singers and jazz singers. It’s been a cool little thrill to write music for someone else and live vicariously through it.”

There’s just as much funky New Orleans brass band as Kentucky bluegrass animating “Lampshade,” which makes attempts to label Dustbowl’s music a reductive exercise. Their genre-splicing spirit has bonded them with bands they admire — Lake Street Dive, Leftover Cuties, the T Sisters, the Record Company, the Wild Reeds — and attracted a cross-generational audience.

One fan in particular stars in the video for their single “Never Had to Go”: Dick Van Dyke, who claps his hands and gazes out at Dustbowl playing in the courtyard of his Malibu casa after dropping a needle on the band’s vinyl record. The spry octogenarian TV legend then humorously attempts to persuade wife Arlene to dance with him as joyful harmonies and the sounds of mandolin, trombone, fiddle and drum sweeten the air.

Posted on YouTube in May, the video had received 2,251,438 views as of press time.

“Dick and Arlene have sort of followed along with us the past few years,” Lupetin explains. “We met them at a wedding in Long Beach. They were dancing as we were playing, and we were like, ‘That’s Dick Van Dyke from “Mary Poppins”!’ It was crazy. Then we talked to him and he was really down to earth, a sweet guy who’s very passionate about old jazz music. He’s a very avid music fan.

“We’re really happy that a lot of people have seen it,” he continues. “You figure that a lot of younger people wouldn’t know who Dick is, but that Hollywood stardust, man — people feel like they know him, especially older folks. It’s almost emotional when they see him. It’s been cool. He’s come out to other shows, and he’s become a friend of the band.

“It’s one of those cool things about living in L.A. On the road, people are like, ‘How are you living in L.A. playing this? You should be in New Orleans or Texas.’ But there’s something about that old-time Hollywood thing. I grew up on that. [Laughs] I think I was way more inspired by musicals than I realized.”

Catch Dustbowl Revival at 10 p.m. Friday at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. The band’s 8 p.m. show has sold out. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit dustbowl-revival.com or mccabes.com.

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