The Vagaband: English Ensemble Seeks to Expand Americana
It should be evident by now that Americana isn’t limited to, well, America. For decades, artists from such far-flung environs as Europe, Australia, and the U.K. have demonstrated their affinity and appreciation for the traditional roots rock regimen, a sound which had its origins in the late ’60s and early ’70s echoes of Southern California. One such outfit is the British eight-piece ensemble that calls itself The Vagaband. Based in Norfolk, England, the band was founded in 2006 by singer/guitarist Jose McGill, bassist Tristen Roche, and pedal steel player Patrick Arbuthnot.
After various personnel shuffles, the reconfigured combo (which, in addition to McGill, Roche, and Arbuthnot now includes Joe “the Bow” Wright on fiddle and mandolin, pianist Greg Cook, drummer Dan Reynolds, and multi-instrumentalists Hugh Stanners and Ali Houiellebecq) released its self-produced debut album Town & Country in 2012. It not only garnered rave reviews, but also designation as one of the “Top 20 New Roots Bands of Europe,” according to The Alternate Root. In short order, the band became regulars on the festival circuit, gaining them a popular fan following in the process.
The Vagaband’s new album, Medicine for the Soul – recently released on their own Eggsongs Records label – should find them earning even more critical kudos, given that it expands their rural regimen to include flugelhorn, clarinet, trombone, and cello in addition to the standard set-up of banjo, fiddle, pedal steel, and mandolin. It’s inspired some pundits to draw references to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Radiohead, even though their traditional trappings mostly remain intact.
For their part, McGill and Cook are earning accolades of their own, inviting some to compare them to Lennon and McCartney by virtue of their sheer versatility. Maximizing the band’s ample instrumental arsenal, their ability to shift between styles reflects a certain savvy that the best British bands have always been able to muster.
Nevertheless, any attempt to typecast The Vagaband generally proves futile. Calling them country rock simply isn’t enough. Certain songs on the new album hold to a back-porch palette – the down-home ramble “Black Sheep,” the loping title track, and the jaunty “The Whistling Song” in particular. Other tracks move them into a mix of Vaudeville, ragtime, and showtime. The carnival-like “Ten Bells Waltz” and the ragtime revelry of “Cisco Wine” reflect a versatility that’s especially impressive for a band that’s just now releasing its sophomore set. Indeed, their ambitions are obvious; on the offering titled “A Town with No Name,” they take a turn into theatrical terrain inspired by composers Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. It’s a stunning pastiche, one that’s especially impressive for a band that’s still just finding its stride.
Given this versatility, the lyric from album opener “Lifted” seems particularly prophetic: “These dancing days don’t last for long/I don’t know where I’m bound but I know where I belong…” As long as they’re willing to pursue their muse, that ultimate destination ought to be equally inspired.