Porchburner and Split Lip Rayfield transcend gimmicks for an excellent live performance at Gabe’s

The lineup for Gabe’s on Friday night, Feb. 24 featured two bands that I had long wanted to watch but had been prevented from seeing. For the past ten years I had heard nothing but excellent reviews of Split Lip Rayfield, featuring the kind of confused generic descriptions (“country punk,” “badass bluegrass”) that generally denotes music that is interesting and worth time exploration. I’d heard about Porchburner not just from washboard player Matthew Cooper, but also from those who had seen them perform and were amazed that I had not.

Photos by Seth Reineke

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Porchburner’s peculiar alchemy, I found, arises in making serious music from materials that would otherwise be thrown off as a joke. From lyrics that are oddly fixated on television shows to the instruments (kazoo, megaphone, washboard), the band would seem to teeter toward silliness.

It is a testament to their genius that the band simply makes music: The instruments, instead of being gimmicks, become parts of a whole that is void of humor and irony. There’s no detachment from the musicians, nothing that is meant to play for the kind of laughter that causes lesser kinds of performance to collapse.

The sounds of each instrument — however rare or seemingly random — becomes integrated into an interesting and harmonic whole with a cleverness that invites the audience to move into the space of the music rather than laughing at it. A fusion of bluegrass and metal, the eclectic quintet refuses to take themselves too seriously but play seriously, nonetheless. It is an excellent balance.

Split Lip Rayfield is also a band that transcends the initial gimmick. As with many who have heard of but not heard the band, I’d known of Jeff Eaton’s homemade bass guitar, constructed from the gas tank of a 1978 Grand Marquis. What I did not expect is the extent to which the sound of this instrument makes for absolutely interesting music.

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Eaton plays it viscerally, hunched over at an odd angle, playing notes with a fury that erupt from it with a distinct rawness that I have not heard from either traditional electric nor stand up basses. Hearing the sound of this particular interest explained why there was no need for a drum or other percussion, noise that would have only obscured the distinctive tones of the bass, which ultimately grounds and fuses the band and shapes its sound.

Now in their second decade of performance (with a few extended breaks), the trio is clearly attuned with each other, often standing close together as their fingers fuel a flow of notes and tones. The speed and dexterity of each instrument is individually impressive, but what is more so is hearing how the sounds of the guitar, banjo and bass work alongside each other at a rapid pace of picking that keeps the band oriented within traditional bluegrass — even as they consistently exceed it.

The harmonies of the band coalesce together with an impressive rawness that parallels the instrumentation. Despite their critical successes and loyal fan base, the band still seems genuinely grateful to be performing together. The combination of sounds — banjo, mandolin, guitar, vocals, anchored on the peculiar genius of the bass — gains power in its live expression, as recordings cannot capture the collaborations that the in-person performance provides.

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