Mount Pilot – Pickin’ & swingin’
In Chicago these days, a band’s mere admission of Uncle Tupelo influence is an act of defiance worthy of respect. Critics and cognoscenti sniff, “Yeah, I’ve heard ’em,” meaning: “Heard one; heard ’em all.” But Mount Pilot’s recent opening slots for Barbara Manning, Emmylou Harris and Robbie Fulks reflect fans in high places and have won them many new ones among the unwashed masses.
Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992 inspired the band’s precursor acoustic duo to play out Matt Webber’s interest in flatpicking and Jon Williams’ devotion to Doc Watson’s fingerpicking style. Williams even admits to admiring Jerry Garcia’s and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s playing, so you know he’s not tossing in Django Reinhardt just for hipster cred. Webber, an alumnus of The Second City improvisational comedy school, is an entertainer above all.
In 1996, after a yearlong quest, the two met their match in a rhythm section. Austin native and bassist Chris Grady was an ’80s punk by birthright. He’d met drummer Kevin O’Donnell via Northwestern University’s music department in 1989. Big-band swing became their thing; taking up the upright was the next step for Grady. The pair’s swing projects with some Squirrel Nut Zippers completed the link.
Once they got their act together, Mount Pilot lost no time making a demo and dispatching it to noted Athens, Ga., producer John Keane. In addition to producing them at his studio in the fall of ’96, Keane hooked the band up with Austin indie label Doolittle, which released Help Wanted, Love Needed, Caretaker in August of this year.
With its roots barely showing, “Three Years in October” is a head-bobbing popper of which the world never can have too many. The rest of the album is a sampler of roots influences and retro-guitar-style references, emphasizing musicianship and synthesizing the band members’ inspirations.
Webber originates the lyrics and fragments of the melody, which the band participates in developing. By design, his lyrics link images whose relationship may not be obvious, leaving plenty of room for interpretation by listeners, including members of the band. When they all focus on the same message, though, they are capable of delivering a considerable emotional wallop. Perhaps the strongest example is “Boulevard”, in which Webber’s voice achieves a rare, convincing intimacy as he takes a friend to task for copping out via suicide.
And what of the band’s name? Certainly you remember the little town down the road from Mayberry frequently visited by Sheriff Andy and Deputy Barney. A right neighborly place, that Mount Pilot.