The Volebeats – The Sky, the ocean, and the Hamtramck shuffle
Can’t forget the Motor City.
Whether in the timeless sounds of Motown or in the resilience of Patti Smith, Detroit has left its gritty and elegant mark on modern music. Although the Volebeats have yet to carve a permanent and arguably a prominent place on the city’s musical map, credit this quintet with three albums, an EP, and a bevy of singles and cover songs.
Detroit equals work, its history rich with immigrants, Southern flight and manufacturing. While these have contributed to American culture, if not the arts per se, this genre of music retains a Southern pedigree in how it is perceived, if not practiced. Still, Minneapolis and Chicago have forged names for themselves when it comes to this music. Do the Volebeats mark a revival in Detroit? The city may not be an arts mecca, but neither is it a desert.
“Traditionally, the last 15 years, there hasn’t been much going on,” said lead guitarist Matthew Smith. The Volebeats are one of many contemporary Detroit bands (among them Rocket 455, the Witches and Medusa Cyclone), and in keeping with a history that includes the MC5 and Martha & the Vandellas, none really springs from the same well. Still, Smith says, there is a sense of community. “We don’t sound anything alike,” he continued. “It’s all centered around a diversity of styles.”
The Volebeats’ sound incorporates country and pop, but there’s a fair amount of mystery that works its way into their music, too. “Asking Why” from their new album Sky and the Ocean (Safe House Records) begins with those familiar trebly, chiming notes one might hear in a spaghetti western. The rhythm section rumbles to life, and then the vocals kick in. The chorus: “Brother asking why/Father asking why/Mother asking why.” The verses don’t offer any more clues as to what the song ‘means.’ It’s more of a feeling, something visceral rather than something intellectual.
At heart, Sky and the Ocean is just rock ‘n’ roll, but done well — workmanlike, steeped in the fundamentals, and without pretentiousness. Engaging throughout, there are no slack moments, no weak links. The arrangements are bold, the playing efficient, the lyrics occasionally dramatic. You may do a double-take on the trebly lead vocal on “2 Seconds”, or on the British Invasion feel of “It’s Alright”, but it’s the band’s way of expressing range.
Sky and the Ocean continues a pattern of steady growth. Their first album, Ain’t No Joke, came out in 1989. It was five years before their second album, Up North, saw the light of day. “A year is nothing in Volebeats time,” joked rhythm guitarist Bob McCreedy, who left Detroit for the Bay Area only to return to the fold. “I missed Jeff,” he joked, causing a cackle in the background.
“Part of it,” said singer and songwriter Jeff Oakes, “we had some personnel changes. But we did put out a single.” Not one of their own songs, mind you. The Volebeats save their best songs for their own records but put the fun stuff on singles and compilation records. The single? Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
Nothing about Up North suggests anything remotely like Detroit. From the cover photo to the last song, the vibe suggests guys playing acoustic guitars around a fire in a one-room cabin in rural Vermont, far from the clutter and chaos of urban life and romance.
In fact, it is Hamtramck, in central Detroit, that the Volebeats call home. Oakes and McCreedy began playing together in the mid-’80s, on the street in front of a leather goods shop that catered to S&M enthusiasts. How’s that for grit?