Woodbox Gang – Above their raisin’
Siblings Brian and Hugh DeNeal, who lead the raunchy, take-no-prisoners ensemble known as the Woodbox Gang, grew up in the Shawnee hollows in southern Illinois, a remote delta region bordered by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and blanketed by forests, swamps and coal fields. Amidst the hell and high waters of the region’s religious conservatism, they were raised by a rebellious poet father.
“Hugh and I used to listen to the Clash with Dad while waiting on the bus to take us to school,” recalls Brian, who plays bass and crowbar in the group; brother Hugh is the group’s primary lyricist, singer and guitarist. They also grew up hearing everything from Delta blues to Irish ballads to mountain folk tunes to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan to the Sex Pistols to Tom Waits.
The DeNeal brothers eventually wound up in the southern Illinois college town of Carbondale, where the Woodbox Gang took shape. Other members include Alex Kirt on banjo, harmonica and a broad assortment of musically-altered gadgets, (including a gutbucket, shovel, gas can and bones), Ratliff Dean Thiebaud on guitar, Sam Boss on mandolin, and Pete McRaven on drums.
The band has evolved over the past couple years into their self-proclaimed genre of “trashcan Americana” or “caustic acoustic.” Their music shares the headlong zeal and mournful traditional music origins of old-school Pogues, or perhaps a hardscrabble version of the Old Crow Medicine Show.
Hugh DeNeal’s ironic and unnerving view of the despair and devilish elements lurking in the southern Illinois forests is evident on Wormwood, the band’s second CD. “God Box Wagon”, “Devil Blues” and “Annie Dyhdde” are delightfully upbeat attacks, juxtaposed by Kirt’s eerie banjo riffs and Hugh’s laconic drone. “Family Night” skewers the down-home country facade with teen pregnancy and crystal meth at the dinner table, churned out with an irresistible chorus.
Shifting the pace, the band can coolly sway into a country blues, such as the lament “Oh, Woman”, or evoke the haunting conversation between a black crow and a scarecrow over a farmer’s untimely death, carried by Hugh’s Dock Boggs-like inflection and a fiddler’s dirgeful refrain.
Notorious for their homemade instruments and onstage antics, as well as their unrestrained joy when playing, the Woodbox Gang was recently selected by the Carbondale music journal Nightlife as the local band of the year 2002. They also recently finished their third CD, Showdown, a live recording from one of their local concerts.
What’s next is finding an audience beyond Carbondale and nearby St. Louis. They did a brief tour last summer that included stops in Memphis, New Orleans and Texas, but a broader national tour is planned for this summer. Until then, the Woodbox Gang remains lurking in the hollows of southern Illinois, a rare find among the ruins of rural America.