Demolition String Band – Parallel development
Active in the often idiosyncratic New York area alt-country scene since 1995, the Demolition String Band moves beyond the city limits with the release of its second disc, Pulling Up Atlantis. Guitarist Boo Reiners offers up the most electrifying electrified flatpicking heard anywhere in the Northeast to complement Elena Skye’s distinctive vocal style, which hits that rarely visited, lively point between sassy R&B, swing ,and the tough girl come-hither whisper of a Debbie Harry fronting the Pretenders — used in the service of Bakersfield honky-tonk.
The two DSB leaders took intriguingly parallel routes to what would become this unique alt-country approach, equally informed by Bakersfield, punk rock, bluegrass, and the rambunctious adventurousness of blues and country old-time string bands.
Daughter of a University of Chicago professor who staged concerts for blacklisted folk singers, Skye was handed her first mandolin at age 14 by a creative guidance counselor who wanted to give a troubled teen something constructive to do. She was appearing in bluegrass shows within months, after instruction by none other than mandolin master Jethro Burns, of Homer & Jethro fame.
A large dose of Ramones mania in her college years in the East led to her formation of the band Minx and then BelleSkye, a power trio in which she played electric bass with guitarist Caren Belle, with whom she still composes many of the key DSB numbers now. The Skye/Belle team worked a stint as contract writers for Peer International in Los Angeles before Skye settled in Hoboken and became well-known as operator of the town’s one indie bookstore, where musicians would sometimes perform.
One of these was Reiners, son of a North Carolina preacher who staged informal community hootenannies. Bluegrass was in the air there, and Reiners, trained on banjo, was performing professionally by age 14. While he was attracted to the Grateful Dead and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for their use of the banjo, he turned to rock and electric guitar when joining what he calls “an NRBQ type band” in college.
After some years playing bluegrass and R&B in the San Francisco area, he moved to Hoboken and by 1992 was the guitar lead in the fabled Sweet Lizard Illtet, with an album out on Warner/Reprise that combined Last Poets-influenced rap and sampling with jazz turns and Reiners’ banjo picking.
The Demolition String Band began as an acoustic outfit playing informal gigs in the East Village, becoming a key part of Greg Garing’s celebrated Alphabet City Opry shows. On off nights, the electric honky-tonk band version of DSB emerged. Skye and Reiners also maintain an ongoing bluegrass side project, Blackwater Shoals, with Buddy Woodward of Nitro Express.
Pulling Up Atlantis was produced by roots-rock heavyweight Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, as was the band’s 1998 debut disc One Dog Town. Among the guest players on Atlantis, released by Okra-Tone Records, is rising sacred steel guitar star Robert Randolph. Recent DSB regulars have included Louie Appel (Southside Johnny) or ex-Ex-Husband Michael Smith on drums, and Winston Roye (Alana Davis) on bass.
The new disc includes their near-bluegrass turn on Madonna’s “Like A Prayer”, which never fails to bring a delayed, amused shock of recognition at their shows — or to work on its own terms as a no-kidding twang statement.
Atlantis also offers a blend of rock and bluesy ballads with the pumping electric country numbers, almost all of which explore very contemporary and complicated relationships, often from the view of a tough, vulnerable and resilient woman who will hang in there, maybe even thrive, despite everything –including guys.