A road-trip fantasy that became a band

Friday November 16, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Its name began as an inside joke, but the band is letting the secret out to anyone who'll listen.

Suitcase Rodeo, a mix of familiar veterans and relative newcomers from the northeast music scene, plays at The Garage on Wednesday in a Thanksgiving eve hometown throwdown. Pittsfield-based hip-hop group Nostalgia shares the bill.

Band member Noah Weiss, a young saxophonist familiar to Berkshire jazz fans (who is also the booker at The Garage) was traveling to the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, with members of local group Billy Keane and the Misdemeanor Out laws, along with musicians playing in other bands and projects. People they came across on the trip asked, quite reasonably, if they were a band -- and it became tiresome to keep explaining their various musical connections.

In Concert
What: Suitcase Rodeo and Nostalgia
When: Wednesday 8 p.m.
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where:The Garage, 111 South St. (Colonial Theatre), Pittsfield
Tickets: $10
How: (413) 997-4444; www.berkshiretheatregroup.org; at the Colonial Theatre box office

Someone came up with a running joke: just tell people they were indeed a band. And call it Suitcase Rodeo.

"We invented this band, and came up with identities as if we were a jug band heading down to Austin," Weiss explains. "It was a fun little fantasy on the road trip and made for some interesting times. What started as a joke quickly became this sort of fantastical idea."

So Weiss had the name of this imaginary band in mind when it came time to spin a real ensemble out of the Monday night jazz residency he's long held down with bassist Andy Wrba and friends at Mission Bar and Tapas. The spirit of the name and its origin seemed to match the loose, unscripted approach the new ensemble brings to its work.

Suitcase Rodeo -- the real, actual band -- worked the festival circuit over the summer and has gigged periodically since, with more dates being set up for the winter. Weiss and Wrba are joined by guitarist Jeff Howard, keyboardist John "Wayno" Waynelovich, drummer An drew Magennis and vocalist Tory Hanna.

As a project, the funky, jazzy band falls somewhere be tween the loose, informal nature of the Monday night residency and a "proper" band seeking to build its profile in the industry. It's built around onstage interplay and though the group's already logged some prestige gigs (like the Gathering of the Vibes festival in Connecticut), it's in no rush to follow the typical commercial model of an independent band trying to make it. Its official bio is decidedly whimsical, and its website appears to be just a title slide. But some live recordings are available on the site Archive.org, and though the attitude is playful, the band is serious about cranking out some funky, dance-able tunes.

"The nice part about this project is it's all for the fun and for the art. There's no pressure on us," Weiss says.

The repertoire is heavy on re-imagined covers from the funk, soul and jazz canon, plus some originals written in other contexts.

Hanna, whose solo work is more rock-oriented, says this is a chance to put his guitar aside and develop his moves as a frontman.

"We're all about light structure and musicianship and improvisation. It's a lot of listening to each other and a lot of vibing out," he says. "It's for people who are sitting and people who kind of want to boogie too."

Gunslinging guitarist Howard brings plenty of cachet from the jamband world, as a founding member of the Mc Lovins (which he has since left), and Wrba and Wayne lovich are known for their work in Barefoot Truth, which called it quits this month.

The different players have combined in various forms under the guise of the Wrba/ Weiss 4tet, but that group's focus on instrumental jazz was not necessarily the best context for the musical skills of this six.

"We wanted a good group that was tailor-made to fit the music direction of everyone in the band, and this particular group of individuals is kind of all on the same page as far as what kind of music we want to create," Weiss says.

Hanna notes that he doesn't have the jazz training of some other members of Suitcase Rodeo, but he finds a way to stay busy even when the band is in mid-jam, letting loose a nearly constant stream of exhortations to the crowd.

"There's certainly some limitations for a vocal guy during a jam-out, but I jump in when I can and the guys seem receptive to it. It's a lot of smiling back and forth. We have a really good time."

And to the listener, that last sentiment sounds indisputable.


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