Venice’s The Dustbowl Revival melds explosive live energy with rich American musical tradition

By Elliot Stiller

Ulf Bjorlin, second from left, and Zach Lupetin, center, take a leap of faith with The Dustbowl Revival

Ulf Bjorlin, second from left, and Zach Lupetin, center, take a leap of faith with The Dustbowl Revival

“Trombone!” Zach Lupetin cries, and Ulf Bjorlin raises the instrument and spits out a dirty, growling medley of notes, rousing a cheer from the crowd that escalates as the rest of the eight-piece band harmonizes to complete a gritty-yet-precise, purely American sound.

The Dustbowl Revival’s energetic July performance at San Luis Obispo’s Live Oak Music Festival is a sign of what’s in store when the band takes the stage on Thursday, Aug. 14, for a free outdoor concert at Culver City City Hall.

“There’s a certain experience that I want people to be able to see — not just sitting there and watching me sing but actually participate, emotionally be moved. It’s all storytelling,” says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Lupetin, founder of the Venice-based musical collective.

The Dustbowl Revival merges old-school bluegrass, gospel, blues and New Orleans swing in a tempest of fiddle, mandolin, trumpet, trombone, drums, bass, guitar, washboard and tuba kazoo, plus Lupetin trading vocals with the rich voice of singer/
percussionist Liz Beebe.

“Our music has evolved into a category that is almost unlabel-able,” Bjorlin says. “It’s hard to explain our genre of music because we touch upon so many genres, from folk to Americana to bluegrass to jazz. Some of our songs even sound like children’s music.”

The Dustbowl Revival’s innovative style has taken them to gigs alongside the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and opening for New Orleans star Trombone Shorty, with roaring local shows earning them LA Weekly’s Best Live Band honors last year.

Lupetin, 27, whipped the band together seven years ago through an ad on Craigslist, gradually picking up members as he worked to realize a dream that began when, at 14, he started his first band in Chicago. Drawn to early country rhythms and bluegrass, he wrote rock and blues, creating bands and performing at various venues. As his college experience drew to a close, Lupetin formed The Willow Family, an acoustic medley of jazz, swing, pop and rock that would serve as a prototype for The Dustbowl Revival when that band fell through and Lupetin sought his fortune in Venice.

Now gearing up to tour across the country, Lupetin and the band are focused as much on lyrics as they are on music.

“I like songs with a twist, a punch line,” Lupetin says. “People who are really paying attention can glean new information from a song; not just bobbing your head mindlessly.”

The band also spices their performances with spontaneous, crowd-pleasing musical twists.

“At any given tune, Zach will blurt out a solo: trumpet, trombone, fiddle,” says Bjorlin, who uses toilet plungers to modify his trombone’s sound. “It’s usually not planned who is going to solo; it’s like a game: ‘who’s going to play now?’”

While the audience is still recovering from a gnarly drum or washboard solo, Bjorlin might surprise them with some impromptu opera.

“One night, I started singing ‘la-la-la’s’ in opera style, and people went nuts. People loved it, and I decided that’s what I’ll do on songs,” Bjorlin explains. “It’s kind of become a shtick that we reserve for one song a night.”

Occasionally, there are songs where the band breaks into a sing-along and enters the crowd, spreading the energy of a party atmosphere and bringing a dance-inspired groove to songs such as “Riverboat Queen,”  “That Old Dustbowl” and “Sunnyside.”

For Bjorlin and Lupetin, it’s all about the live show.

“Playing outside is really fun because people can experience the music in a much more open way,” Lupetin says. “Families and all ages can participate.”

“It’s fun music,” adds Bjorlin. “People dance and smile.”

As part of the city’s Boulevard Music Summer Festival, The Dustbowl Revival takes the stage at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14, in the courtyard at Culver City City Hall, 9770 Culver Blvd., Culver City. Free, or reserve seating for $10. Park in the lot at Washington Boulevard and Watseka Avenue (first two hours free). For more information, call (310) 253-6000 or visit