Some of the best things about life on this blue planet earth are nearly beyond the strength of words – your favorite kind of sunlight, affection, why cracking your back feels so good – and now I would add a new item to that list – the Central PA band Perkasie. These folks produce this music that, well, meshes together a sound that reminds me of Over the Rhine (mostly because of singer Kate Foust’s amazing voice), a little bit of Conor Oberst (here because of Alex Wash’s voice and keyboards), a dash of Rufus Wainwright, some Guthrie, and a pinch of Hee-Haw. In fact, the closest thing I could imagine to their sound and performance is the album Till We Outnumber ‘Em, a tribute to Woody Guthrie that included Springsteen, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. There’s something of the festive, let’s-celebrate-greatness spirit about Perkasie.
The band combines this odd but successful conglomeration of voices and sounds, fronted by Foust’s and Wash’s inventive, fun, and playful lyrics. Dominic Billet provides a solid drum beat (not to mention raucous song kick-offs) and strong backing vocals, Danny Sadler kicks an understated by essential bassline, Ben Roth, with his crazy locks of hair, carries backing vocals, acoustic guitar, and Jesus impressions. Matt Kelly dances a washboard with the best of this front-porch bands I saw in childhood, and Dillon Reichel’s hands must ache from the tambourine pounding and mandolin picking. And when Grandpa takes the stage with his accordion, (yes, that’s right, Wash’s grandfather played along), well, all hope is lost that you can stand still and observe – you’re part of the show now, so you better dance. Watching them is kind of like watching a kid spin in circles for hours; she makes you want to spin, too.
Before last night’s show at the Chameleon Club with Slimfit and Madi Diaz, in Lancaster, PA, Alex Wash gave me a few minutes of his time. As we sat in the upstairs back rooms of the club, I asked Alex who his major influences were, and as he spoke, I began to see why their sound is so beyond the range of categorization. Alex listed The Hackensaw Boys, the Heritage Songster (a book I had not thought of since Mrs. Feichter pulled it and her omnichord out for 5th -grade music class), and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Perhaps because they are so influenced by these bands with historical influences, this is why their music contains such depth and complexity. I can’t help but imagine this is how music was created back before bands went to clubs and had practice spaces, when people used to get together to play at night when they wanted to be social. I imagine living rooms and backyards perched on the side of mountains, people sitting around, drinking, laughing, making sound together.
This idea is reinforced when you see these guys play. They obviously enjoy being together. Foust gets up in close to Reichel and sings into his ear; Roth holds his guitar close to his chin and nearly eats the mike. At moments, the whole band comes forward into a line and sings together, begging a sing-along from the audience. When I asked Alex about his favorite sound that he could hear from his house, he said, “Kate Foust’s voice in his living room.” This is a group of kindred spirits united in sound.
And all this camaraderie and sense of history belies the band’s age. These guys are barely in their 20s, and already they’re making great music (and reading great books – Wash lists Bob Dylan’s and Woody Guthrie’s autobiographies as among his favorite books and Kurt Vonnegut as one of his favorite writers). As writer and musician Keith Wilson says, “The origin of the bandâ€™s self-described â€œold timeyâ€ sound, however, is less clear-cut. Perkasie does not sound like anything you have heard from this area before. Somehow, though, each song feels like you have been hearing its melodies on the radio from a time immemorial. There is an effortless joy to this music that ultimately and instantly transcends the trappings of a period-specific experiment.” Absolutely.
So if you get a chance to see Perkasie live, do it. You’ll get to be one of the people that says, “I saw them when . . . . ,” and you’ll get to be a part of their story. Plus, you’ll be tapping your toes and spinning in circles. With their sense of musical history, their talent, their obvious affection for each other, these guys will be begging description for years to come. Let’s hope they continue to defy it.
Alex Wash’s Mixtape Selections
“The End” – Ryan Adams
“Blue Angel” – Squirrel Nut Zippers
“Boys on the Docks” – Drop Kick Murphys
Los requiebros from Goyescas (Los majos enamorados) – Granados
“Oh My Dear” – Eureka Birds
“Wrecking Ball” – Toy Soldiers
“Weekend” – Dr. Dog
“Angelfuck” – The Misfits
“Aeroplane” – The Everybodyfields
“Left on Laura, Left on Lisa” – Avett Brothers (Alex says this is the group he’d most like to tour with, too)
“Life of the Party” – Longwave
“Golden” – My Morning Jacket
“Ruby Mae” – The Felice Brothers