Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Van Ghost

Often, some of the best work in any medium – be it art, sports, politics, etc – is done when someone who has toiled backstage, behind a camera or as the mouthpiece for someone else steps out and claims the spotlight for their own. For instance, backup catchers have become some of the best managers in baseball, while both Gary Marshall and Marty Scorsese have stepped in front of the lens for cameo turns. Ben Stein was a speechwriter in the Nixon and Ford White Houses before becoming one of the most unlikely screen personalities, and Dave Ghrol manned the drum kit in one of music's most meteoric bands before fronting his own outfit that has far outlasted his predecessor's.

Such is the case of Michael Berg of Van Ghost. For more than a decade, he rolled them cases out and lifted them amps in Chicago's hearty music scene, watching acts like Wilco and Andrew Bird hone their acts and garner critical acclaim. After dropping a few tunes on a six-string at a friend's nuptials in 2007, Berg began to explore the possibility of fronting his own group. Rather than going the singer-songwriter route, he sought to expand his sound by reaching out to a set of musicians he had befriended through his years backstage. Drawing from his instincts in Americana and the too-often overhyped "alt country" movement, he assembled a contingent more grounded in The Band and Gram Parsons than Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt – including pedal steel picker Rocco Labriola and harmony vocalist Jennifer Hatswick, formerly of Trey Anistasio's group.

Sporting a voice somewhere between the frequent Gillian Welch contributor Dave Rawlins and Austin-based troubadour Bob Schneider, Berg doesn't stretch his range beyond its limits, instead preferring to let the band's depth and warmth round out the sound. The group would have no trouble fitting in a nice valley between Music From Big Pink and the Travelling Wilburys, evoking a communal jam somewhere along the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York or the Missouri River basin. And yet, modern influences don't escape Van Ghost either, not so much through the grainy lens of Jeff Tweedy or the still-unappreciated Okkervil River, but rather in the Jackson Browniness of My Morning Jacket or the beautifully haphazard work of the Avett Brothers. As always, a well-deployed Hammond organ or timely fiddle detour help elevate a song like "Wednesday" beyond a lazy roots rock ballad into a breezy trip across a stretch of open road.

What really moves the group's seminal debut, Music for Lovers, beyond some amalgamation of moe.-flavored jam band wandering and force-fed alt country are elements like Frank Catalano's surprising sax entry on "Satisfied" that steers the track closer to the best of Chicago, or the industrial-sounding guitar intro of "Lessons" that evokes more Noel Gallagher than Robbie Robertson. This layering of influences beyond rote Americana indicate Berg and his mates are interested in more than riding the coattails of the Kings of Leon or the collaboration between Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, as admirable as both of those offerings may be.

Sure, Van Ghost will never get your blood boiling with the passion of Muse, or deconstruct the boundaries of progressive rock like Radiohead, but sometimes you feel like "you're done running and I think I better come away with something to say, something to say; it brings me back to a Colorado mountain, it was could outside, but I really didn't mind," as Berg describes in the group's leadoff single, "Summer Promise." In other words, sometimes it just doesn't need to be that hard.

Come for: "Summer Promise"
Stay for: "Wednesday"
You'll be surprised by: "Satisfied"

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