When a band takes its name from one of the best-known fictional characters of the 19th century, one might expect its resultant sound to be a throwback to another era.
But Marley’s Ghost, which returns to Claremont Sunday, August 21 for a Gelencser House Concert, only half lives up to that notion. The Seattle-based group has, over its 30-year career, combined country, blues, Celtic, reggae, bluegrass and folk, and the resulting stew is singularly modern American music.
The band’s ninth and latest record, The Woodstock Sessions, was released July 15. It showcases the group’s love for and mastery of traditional American music.
The band’s live shows have become the stuff of legend among festival- and concert-goers, with its four-part harmonies and fearsome musicianship earning well-deserved acclaim along with its joyous and witty stage personae.
That rare combination of chops, imagination and wit has led to collaborations with several well-known musical icons. The late Cowboy Jack Clement, Marty Stuart, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Van Dyke Parks and even the Old Crow Medicine Show have all worked with Marley’s Ghost. The band’s latest collaboration, with producer/musician Larry Campbell—whose worked with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, among others—resulted in The Woodstock Sessions.
“He just sorta drove the truck, y’know,” explained Marley’s Ghost’s bassist multi-instrumental and co-lead vocalist Dan Wheetman, when asked about Mr. Campbell’s influence on the new release.
“Larry had some really great arrangement ideas. And it was never a heavy-handed thing. He listened to every idea, and we tried a bunch of different stuff. He was actually the way you always want [a producer] to be. He sort of became another member of the band. We were all in the same headspace together, thinking about what we were doing. It was really fun.”
Mr. Wheetman had met Mr. Campbell a few years back, when he and Mr. Campbell’s wife were both acting in a play.
“He came to visit her and we hung out for five or six days playing music in the evenings,” he explained. “He’s just a real easygoing guy and a great player. So we invited him to play on the last album [Jubilee, 2012], just to sort of get a sense about how it would go if we worked together. We didn’t tell him that, but it was obvious from the beginning that he just really got the band. He’s got a real deep love for traditional music, and we all come out of that background, as well as rock ’n’ roll and reggae, and he said ‘I’d love to do an album with you, and you can do any kind of album you want, but you guys really have such a connection with traditional music, that I’d really love to do an album of traditional tunes.’”
The Woodstock Sessions was recorded over three weeks at the late, legendary Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York, with overdubs later at another studio near the band’s Seattle base. Levon Helm Studios, located in the famed upstate New York town that has been home to so much musical history, was a fine fit for the band, Mr. Wheetman said.
The band recorded a batch of demos of new tunes they were working on and sent them to Mr. Campbell. “He picked a bunch of them,” Mr. Wheetman said, “and then we went out to Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, which was just, wow!”
If one were looking for a venue in which to create traditional American music, one could perhaps do no better than a studio in which Mr. Helm, who died in 2012, played with and hosted a virtual who’s-who of modern popular music over the last decade of his life. His “Midnight Ramble” shows, which began as a rent party but ended up becoming something magical, attracted a stunning list of performers: late Blues Hall of Fame pianist Pinetop Perkins, Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket, Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones have all played the Ramble, along with many other well-known names. Mr. Helm’s musical director for all those years of Rambles was Mr. Campbell.
The idea for the new Marley’s Ghost effort was to create a traditional record that would be accessible to modern ears. “And I think we really did that,” Mr. Wheetman said. “I think it was a success.”
The band, which played a Claremont Folk Music Center date this past March, enjoys the unique intimacy a house concert provides.
“I love ‘em. I mean, you’re in somebody’s living room or backyard!” said Mr. Wheetman. “And it has a completely different feel to it from being on some stage somewhere, which feels so much more presentational, rather than the way music was played forever, which was on front porches and in backyards and in living rooms.”
Mr. Wheetman added that he was glad to be returning to the City of Trees. “I love Claremont,” he said. “It’s a great place with good folks, good audiences and smart people. It has that great, old-fashioned downtown area. It’s got great restaurants. And the houses! I love those old Craftsman homes and the tree-lined streets. To me, it has that real kind of hometown feel to it that I like.”
The band will play two shows in Washington this weekend before playing three southern California dates next week, including the Claremont stop. After a few stateside festivals in September, Marley’s Ghost will embark on a European tour in October.
Marley’s Ghost appears at 4 p.m. Sunday, August 21 at Gelencser House Concerts. The suggested donation is $20. For tickets, venue location and information, go to gelencserhouseconcerts.com, email email@example.com or call (909) 596-1266.
More information on Marley’s Ghost is available at the band’s website at marleysghost.com.