Vantage Canada – Newgrass survival
At day’s end, when the Bedrock whistle blows in downtown St. Paul, office workers draw the blinds and begin their daily exodus from the city. When the dust has settled, what remains has been described by many as a modern day ghost town. By nightfall, one of the last pockets of activity is the Top Hat Lounge, the musical home away from home for Vantage Canada.
The band began in 1994 when longtime friends and former bandmates Rich Morgan (bass) and Chuck Nelson (lead vocals, guitar, mandolin, harmonica) reunited on Nelson’s front porch with their acoustic guitars. They quickly discovered that in the years which had passed since they played alterna-rock together their tastes had taken similar turns toward roots-oriented music. Nelson’s brother-in-law, guitarist Rob Radack, joined the band, and before long they had written several dozen original tunes.
The band’s 1996 debut disc Dance In The Kitchen was welcomed by local critics and audiences alike. Their unique folkgrass sound, coupled with the historical take on society’s growing pains, filled a void in the local scene. Being their own harshest critics though, Morgan and Nelson were left wanting more. “The problem with the first CD,” says Morgan, “is that you never know if you’re going to get to make another one. So you capture what you feel are your best songs, even if they have nothing to do with one another.”
“As a result,” Nelson adds, “Dance is a little scattered and unfocused.” Morgan says their soon-to-be-released follow-up is more cohesive, dealing primarily with relationships — “not the ‘Melrose Place’ type, but rather those relationships and problems that are created as society changes. Conflict really is the center of the album.”
Although their reckless style of bluegrass is entertaining, lyrics are an essential component of Vantage Canada’s music. Live settings are seldom conducive to their particular brand of storytelling, but they persevere. On a recent night, they got sandwiched between two electric bands in a club where loud is synonymous with good. Knowing full well that their all-acoustic lineup would be an abrupt contrast, they simply got onstage, pulled their chairs in a loose semi-circle and went about their business. Back home at the Top Hat a few nights later, the band politely vamped on an intro for several minutes while some self-important slob in the front row carried on a conversation on his cell phone. When he hung up, they moved on to the first verse as if nothing had happened.
In addition to Morgan, Nelson and Radack, the lineup sometimes includes Kirk Liska (drums), Corwin Butterworth (dobro, mandolin) and Tamara Bottge or Andrea Early (fiddle), depending on the gig. Although the instrumentation suggests bluegrass, Morgan points out that their music is not exactly traditional. “Our bluegrass is in many ways the country equivalent of Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ — maybe the ‘Fence of Sound’,” he suggests. “The music is careening and rattling like a ’71 Fury III going down a fire road; things are falling off and it’s swerving all over hell….Christ, I hope it stays together long enough to get to the end. If there is such a thing as ghost, I dread the night Bill Monroe walks through my wall.”