Strings theory: The Dustbowl Revival brings eclectic mix to Gateway City Arts

  • The eight-member Dustbowl Revival brings its eclectic mix of old-time bluegrass, swing, blues and more to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Friday.  Image courtesy of The Dustbowl Revival

  • The band’s most recent album, on Signature Sounds Records, explores a more modern sound including R&B and Stax-style soul. Image courtesy of The Dustbowl Library

  • “You could call it roots music, but ultimately it’s really up to the listener,” says Zach Lupetin, lyricist for the eight-member band Dustbowl Revival, shown above, playing in Holyoke on Friday.  Image courtesy of The Dustbowl Revival

  • What don’t they play? The Dustbowl Revival weds mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass, drums and brass for its old-time music. Image courtesy of The Dustbowl Revival

Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2018 3:33:42 PM

Musical chameleons. Or maybe restless explorers.

As Zach Lupetin sees it, using terms like these to describe the actual members of The Dustbowl Revival might be a better way to capture what the band is all about — at least better than any particular description of the music itself.

“We get asked a lot about what it is we play, and it’s always been hard to come up with a simple name,” said Lupetin, the band’s lyricist and one of its two main singers. “You could call it roots music, but ultimately it’s really up to the listener.”

The California-based Dustbowl Revival, as the name implies, plays a heady mix of old-time blues and folk, swing, Dixieland jazz, string band music and more. Merging mandolin, fiddle, guitar, drums, bass, trumpet and trombone, the group has become known for its great stage presence, winning a vote for best live band in Los Angeles.

The eight-piece band, which previously has touched down in the Valley at the Green River Festival and Northampton’s Academy of Music and The Parlor Room, makes its first visit to Holyoke on Friday with an 8 p.m. show at Gateway City Arts.

In a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles, Lupetin talked about the band’s most recent album, an eponymous disc released last summer by Signature Sounds of Northampton, as well as the group’s history, which makes for one of the more interesting band origin stories: Several of the members initially met through Craigslist.

As Lupetin, a Chicago native, explained, he’d graduated from college in Michigan in 2007 and moved to L.A. to study film. But he was also serious about music — he plays guitar, harmonica and kazoo — and songwriting, and he wanted to find other players who shared his interest in old-time music as well as performers like Louis Armstrong, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Wilco.

“I put an ad on Craigslist and said ‘If you like this kind of music, and you play an instrument that’s part of it, let’s get together,’ ” he said. “The response was great — amazingly, several of the people who first showed up are still in the band, including some players who don’t tour with us but still sit in with us on occasion. We have an extended family of dustbowlers.”

“We got really lucky,” Lupetin added. “When it comes to starting a band, 50 percent is having the right people in the right place at the right time, and 50 percent is hard work and stubbornness … We were all interested in playing this really wide range of music and sticking with it, and audiences gave us the benefit of the doubt, where we could play sets that were all over the place.”

Though in the past the band might occasionally muster 12 people at a time on stage, the current eight-person lineup solidified over the past few years and has been bolstered by the addition of lead singer Liz Beebe, whose powerhouse vocals are particularly prominent on the new album. Lupetin also sings lead on some songs, and he and Beebe often harmonize with each other.

After releasing three earlier albums and an EP, The Dustbowl Revival signed with Signature Sounds, which in 2015 released the live album “With a Lampshade On,” an excellent showcase of the band’s diverse sound. Tunes like “Old Joe Clark” and “Cherokee Shuffle,” for instance, are old-fashioned hoedowns largely built around fiddle and mandolin; “Hey Baby” offers bluesy soul; and “Ballad of the Bellhop,” with its punchy trumpet and trombone riffs, could have been plucked from the 1930s swing scene.

Lupetin says “Ballad of the Bellhop” is a perfect example of what appeals to the band about old-time music: “It’s got a timeless quality, but it’s also the kind of music you can bring a real rock ’n’ roll energy to.”

New directions

Until its most recent album, The Dustbowl Revival followed a pretty basic formula for developing new songs: Lupetin wrote lyrics and composed some basic music and chord progressions on his acoustic guitar, then brought that framework to the other members to flesh out the tune. (The band also has covered some traditional songs.)

“I’d usually have some ideas for the rhythm section, the horns, and the strings, and the guys would build on that,” Lupetin said.

But “The Dustbowl Revival,” which has 11 tracks, grew out of a more collaborative process, he noted, in part because the other band members wanted more input in the songs (Beebe contributed lyrics to one tune, for example), and also because the group explored a more modern, blues/soul/R&B sound on a number of tracks that had members trying out new riffs and rhythms.

The album’s producer, Ted Hutt, who has worked with groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and Dropkick Murphys, encouraged the band to stretch itself on the new record. “He came to some of our live shows and said ‘You’ve really got that funky bluegrass, swing thing going, but I feel there’s something else you can try,’ ” said Lupetin.

Indeed. The album’s opening track, “Call My Name,” is a soul-washed number with prominent bass and lots of bright flourishes from trumpeter Matt Rubin and trombonist Ulf Bjorlin. “Good Egg” rocks along on the energetic drumming of Josh Heffernan, Beebe’s vocals and more punchy trumpet. By contrast, “Busted” and “Leaving Time,” two songs about love gone wrong, are slow, minor-chord blues (“Leaving Time” also features a great mandolin solo by Daniel Mark).

Lupetin sings lead on the folk-tinged “Debtors’ Prison,” a song that has a Depression-era feel but is actually about a modern couple trying to get by in today’s diminished economy. And on another acoustic-based tune, “Got Over,” the narrator looks back in disbelief at a car accident that took the life of his girlfriend or wife.

“That was me writing from the perspective of how the bad part of falling in love is that you can start feeling protective about someone, how you can have this fear of ‘What if something happens to her?’ ” said Lupetin, who is married.

He says the band’s new collaborative process of producing songs means finalizing the material takes longer, which sometimes bothers him “because I can be impatient — I like to work fast.” But the group also has a tight personal dynamic, he says, that’s kept them together on ever-lengthening tours across the country and to Europe and China, and which also serves them well in the studio.

“We can weave a tapestry together,” he said. “And all of us love bringing a new song to life. It’s exciting, like falling in love with music all over again.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

The Dustbowl Revival plays Gateway City Arts in Holyoke at 8 p.m. on Friday. Americana folk band Town Meeting, from Boston, opens the show. For tickets and additional information, visit









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