The great thing about being a folk-rock cover band in the 21st century is there's so much darn good music to cover. The challenge is to make it sound good when so many professionals have already recorded these songs. Local band Black Train not only draws from a wide-ranging repertoire but also offers inspired interpretations. After listening to a set at Crazy Wisdom Tea Room with songs by Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Lyle Lovett, the Who, Woody Guthrie, and Lucinda Williams, I wanted to call out other favorites just to hear what the band could do.
Black Train brings together seasoned local musicians who are long past learning instruments, songs, or how to be in a band. So they're free to just enjoy each other's talent while performing the soundtrack of their own lives (compiled in a thick black binder on a music stand). They chose their name because "we play so many train songs," rhythm guitarist and vocalist Vicki Dischler explained while introducing Fred Eaglesmith's "I Like Trains."
Kevin Lentz plays a bass line that walks and talks, and drummer Paul Koch completes the rhythm section with understated power - I'd like to hear him unleashed in a more boisterous setting than the Tea Room. These musicians lay the perfect foundation for the remarkable lead guitar sounds of Randall Beek, equally skilled at bluesy slide, country-style picking, and rock-god string-bending solos. The band gives him time in almost every number to show off forty-plus years of guitar playing experience.
Just about everyone sings, but the lead vocals are usually carried by Vicki - who has a resonant, gravelly voice just right for the blues - or singer-guitarist Kristen Uthus, whose higher, brighter voice is strong both as lead and in harmony with others. Put all together, Black Train's full sound felt like a lot for the Tea Room - and that was before they rocked the house with "Mama's got a squeeze box/Daddy never sleeps
The above-average-age white crowd at the packed Tea Room looked wisely appreciative of this band of peers, but Black Train would offer a perfect introduction to Americana for teenagers - if their parents could convince them to check it out. The band rarely performs in bars. Families should look for Black Train at the Art Fair, farmers' markets, and coffee shops like Pierce's Pastries Plus in Chelsea.
Black Train isn't writing any originals, putting out its own CD, or even playing very often. But when these musicians come together in this configuration, it's an excuse to combine their varied passions to play - and play with - the songs they've always loved. They aren't on the way up, or looking to break out. They're simply at the top of their game.
Black Train is at Crazy Wisdom Friday, March 30.
[Review published March 2007]