‘American roots orchestra’ Dustbowl Revival livens up Skirball’s Harvest Festival Sunday

By Bliss Bowen

Dustbowl Revival’s latest album unlocked a new sense of purpose, confidence and cohesion for the band

It’s been fascinating watching Dustbowl Revival evolve over the years. From their early, freewheeling string-band days playing neighborhood watering holes like the Cinema Bar with as many as 13 members, they’ve evolved into a tight, New Orleans-influenced octet that tours internationally for multigenerational audiences and shifts comfortably from bluegrass breakdowns to second line celebrations.

Their entertaining eclecticism has attracted famous fans like Keb’ Mo’; Dick Van Dyke, who memorably danced through their video “Never Had to Go” (a single from their 2015 album “With a Lampshade On”); and Flogging Molly co-founder Ted Hutt, who produced their self-titled fourth album. Bandleader and guitarist/vocalist Zach Lupetin credits the Grammy-winning Hutt with pushing the band to hone their song craft.

“He [urged] us to stop going off instrumentally and really get to the heart of songs, the theme and energy that makes the song go,” Lupetin says. “He was feeling the soul and funk direction that we were starting to go [in], and he really pushed us forward with that. He was like, ‘Why don’t we focus in a little more and really do songs that connect with each other emotionally.’”

“The Dustbowl Revival” consequently boasts a new sense of declarative purpose and cohesion. The band’s always swung with confidence, but this set offers a more complex pairing of what Lupetin calls “more emotionally vulnerable and raw” storytelling and joyful, danceable tunes.

Standouts include “Honey I Love You” with Keb’ Mo’ and the vengeful kiss-off “If You Could See Me Now.” The latter tune’s lyrics were penned by frontwoman/ukulele player Liz Beebe, who shares Lupetin’s flair for drama and invests the song with righteous bite and triumph. The amiably tough-luck tale “Debtors’ Prison” was on the band’s must-do list from the outset.

“It’s [about] people who haven’t found their calling, and haven’t found how they’re gonna make it in life,” Lupetin says. “Initially the chorus was inspired by [sings a line from Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song”]: ‘Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you honey.’ I’ve always loved that song. What is the dark side of that song? We’re in love with each other, but we’re deep in debt. I read a lot of stuff about people who go to the hospital, they don’t have insurance, and the hospital’s like, ‘Hey, $100,000.’”

The bluesy outlier is “Don’t Wait Up.” Unusual for Dustbowl, it’s a topical song, addressing racism over a chilling groove, funeral horns and images of church burnings and lynchings from America’s past that felt all too relevant to the band as they recorded it shortly after the presidential election:

“The church went up in flames
And nobody knew their names…
Daddy, when will justice be done?…
They caught him near Baton Rouge
They said boy we got some plans for you
Find the highest tree
You’ll be flying free…
Driving deep
He’s swinging in his sleep”

Lupetin wanted it to march with the “ominous spookiness” of CCR’s “Born on the Bayou.” Once a “straight melancholy blues” too quiet and dark for previous recordings, it’s now driven by a violin and bass bowing together, creating a slapping effect resembling a drum on the ground. It almost didn’t make it onto the album, but Lupetin and Beebe (“my partner in crime up there”) pushed hard for its inclusion. At one point Hutt encouraged him to rewrite the lyrics to better blend with an album of songs about love and relationships. But Lupetin sees it as a “father-son story” as well as a poetic tale of an unknown civil rights hero, who goes out one night to seek justice for a church burning, but never returns home to his wife and son.

“It’s really almost a period piece,” he says. “People going out and fighting for what they believe in even if they know it’s going to get them killed. It’s a son asking his mother will his dad ever come back. No, he went out and tried to fight for what he believes in and got caught up in a dark story. Those dark stories are different now but they’re still frighteningly realistic.”

Another song that almost got tossed was the infectious “Call My Name,” which opens the album with raucous drums and horns. “It went from this song we were gonna throw away to our favorite song on the record,” Lupetin says, laughing. “It kind of slaps you in the mouth.”

Three of Dustbowl’s members live on the Westside, including the just-married Lupetin, who lives within walking distance of McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where they just played a sold-out show. He estimates they play between 150 and 200 shows a year, though now that things are slowing down for fall he’s looking forward to the band developing music that’s been “sort of gestating” for their next album.

“The goal really is to keep bringing this music to bigger venues, play with our musical heroes, and hope to move people,” Lupetin says.

Dustbowl Revival performs at Harvest Festival: A Sukkot Celebration at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles on Sunday, Oct. 8; the festival happens from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are free and include museum admission, but are issued on first-come, first-served basis. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org