EP Review of The Walcotts’ Vol. 1
By Mark Pulliam
Levon Helms lives. Yes, the iconic drummer and lead vocalist for The Band passed away at 71 earlier this year, but a new L.A.-based band formed around long-time collaborators Tom Cusimano (guitars, vocals), Devin Shea (violin), Jimmy Olson (drums) and Neil MacPherson (piano) channels the Americana sound forged by Helms and his influential colleagues. It is no coincidence that the new group’s name, The Walcotts, is derived from the song “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” on The Band’s 1970 Stage Fright album. On The Walcotts’ debut EP, entitled Vol. 1, Cusimano’s soulful vocals (with pitch perfect harmonies by Emily Alfstad) recall Helms’ signature country-accented tenor voice, and the unusual array of instruments (including trombone, ragtime-flavored piano, violin, organ, and mandolin) pay tribute to The Band’s legendary multi-instrumental virtuosity. Helms’ influence is apparent on all four tracks, but especially Vol. 1’s first song, “Should’ve Been Me” (which has been featured on No Depression, along with “Instead”). The Walcotts’ Facebook page describes the group’s genre with a Levon Helms quote. Front man Cusimano discovered trombonist Ulf Bjorlin playing at a Levon Helms tribute night in Los Angeles. Even Vol . 1’s cover art, depicting a decrepit mobile home, evokes the southern gothic imagery featured in many of The Band’s songs and Helms’ later solo work.
So why would an ensemble of rockers who recorded several albums and EPs as The Riders decide to re-boot as an Americana group with a distinctly different sound (Cusimano notes that Vol . 1 is the only recording he has ever made that does not contain a single guitar solo)? It started when The Riders co-founders Cusimano (who lives in L.A.) and Olson (who lives in Oakland) decided to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert together in Los Angeles in April of this year—around the time of Helms’ untimely demise. (Although both Cusimano and Olson are both huge fans of The Boss, Olson had never seen Springsteen perform live.) The ever-enterprising Cusimano booked some studio time (at Fonogenic Studios in L.A., owned by Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers, Foo Fighters)) to coincide with Olson’s visit, and in the weeks leading up to the recording session sat down with fellow L.A. musicians and song writers Sasha Smith (helpinstill, organ, piano), Jamison Holllister (mandolin, pedal steel), and Matt Kapuchinski to brainstorm some new material. Crammed together in a bedroom in Cusimano’s apartment, they jointly hammered out some songs, including the jaunty “Should’ve Been Me.” The chemistry inspired Cusimano (who had taken a break from songwriting because “I felt like it wasn’t going anywhere I wanted”) to pen the mournful “By The Morning” and the introspective “Staring Back.” The remaining track, “Instead,” started as a riff, but Cusimano immediately heard it as a duet, and brought Emily Alfstad aboard to complete the wistful ballad. Alfstad, whom Cusimano calls a “diamond in the rough,” sings beautiful harmony vocals and gets co-credit (with Cusimano) for writing “Instead.” Cusimano describes the impromptu collaboration with The Walcotts “one of the most enjoyable songwriting experiences I have ever had. Basically we needed new influences, new ideas, new everything . . . .” It worked. Cusimano recruited bassist Erik Kertes and trombonist Bjorlin (who also performs with The Dustbowl Revival) for the session, and the tracks appearing on Vol. 1 (as well as a couple of additional tunes featuring San Diego singer Melly Frances that have not yet been mixed) were laid down.
The question remains: Why did The Riders, who had performed together as a rock band for nearly a decade, opening for first rate acts such as Robin Trower, America, and Chris Isaak, re-form as an Americana group with a conscious nod to The Band? Cusimano explains: “The Band has always been a major influence for Jimmy, Devin, and myself. We’ve touched on it before with The Riders and songs like “Katie May I” [from The Riders’ Crown City Sessions (2009)] and “Toby’s Song” [from 200 Miles From Everywhere (2006)], but what really made this sound more like The Band was the addition of writers and players like Jamison and Sasha, Emily’s voice, and the fact that I have been listening to more and more of The Band all the time. So it just comes out.” Cusimano is being modest. Any garage band can fake their way through a set of rock material. Americana is a difficult genre to master credibly because it has to sound and feel real. Cusimano’s and Alfstad’s vocals perfectly complement the original songs, all expertly performed. Levon Helms would approve. The Walcotts’ Vol. 1 is an authentic –and artistically meritorious—tribute to Helms’ memory and legacy.