Mountain Melodies, Desert Blues This Week At Stuart’s

Posted on:

< < Back to

The Steel Wheels (photo: provided)

Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville presents two very different musical performances this week. Occasionally, the venue presents intimate "backstage" performances where the audience sits with the artists on the stage of the Opera House.

The April 3 Thursday backstage show features the contemporary Americana string band The Steel Wheels.

The group, based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, formed about a decade ago as Trent Wagler and The Steel Wheels, a project assembled by the principle songwriter and lead vocalist of the group.

By 2010, The Steel Wheels had become a fully integrated, professional unit with the release of Red Wing. That album garnered seven Independent Music Award nominations and remained on the Americana Music Association’s Top 40 chart for over three months.

The sight of four musicians playing guitar, fiddle, upright bass and mandolin, hunkered around a single microphone, may give the impression of a traditional bluegrass band. But the songs–penned by Wagler–blend the old with the contemporary. Occasionally, the band throws a traditional tune or a Tom Waits song into the mix.

The Steel Wheels have performed at many renowned North American music festivals including Merlefest, Walnut Valley, the Ann Arbor Festival, Grey Fox, Wheatland, Kerrville and many more. This July, they are hosting a festival of their own, the second annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival, with a stellar lineup of friends and like-minded musicians including Trampled By Turtles, Yarn, the Stray Birds, The Devil Makes Three, Sarah Jarosz and the Hackensaw Boys. 

And to promote a healthy lifestyle and a smaller carbon footprint, the band takes part in an annual bike-to-work week that they call Spokesongs, where the four members and their crew tour with all their gear on bicycles.

The Saharan desert blues band, Tinariwen, returns to Stuart's the following evening on Friday, April 4.  NPR Music’s Bob Boilen says of this band, "Let’s get one thing straight: Tinariwen is just about the best guitar-based rock band of the 21st century."

Tinariwen at Stuart's Opera House, 2012 (photo: Abigail Fisher/WOUB)

The members of Tinariwen are Kel Tamashek (or those who speak Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg) , a nomadic people who have often been at odds with the Malian governments repressive policies. Tinariwen (which roughly translates to The Desert Boys) is a Malian musical collective, founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib in the late 1970s and is comprised of former Tuareg freedom fighters that formed in a desert rebel camp.

In 1994, after a rebellion broke out in the desert, peace was signed with the government, the rebels put down their guns and returned to their homeland. Tinariwen's political songs became a rallying cry for a people who had long suffered from discrimination, neglect, years of drought and a changing culture. 

Much has been made of the band's roots in the camps and their exile as freedom fighters in Libya and Algeria. Besides being politicized and trained as fighters and activists, they became exposed to a vast array of other musical styles outside the Tuareg tradition, from Moroccan protest music, Arabic poptunes and Algerian ray to western artists like Hendrix, Santana, Bob Marley, Dire Straits and Led Zeppelin.

Since 2001, their reputation and following has slowly grown from the Saharan region to international acclaim. Today, they are North Africa's biggest rock band and World Music giants. Many of the artists that originally inspired the members of Tinariwen, like Carlos Santana and Robert Plant, have become their fans and advocates.

Tinariwen received the BBC Award for World Music in 2005 and Tassili, their fifth album, won a Grammy for Best World Music release of 2011. That album was a departure from the trance-like, electric guitar driven sound that they established on their earlier recordings.    

However with new album, Emmaar, released this February, the band returns to the call-and-response electric blues and hypnotic grooves of the previous recordings.

With the universal recognition and critical accolades that the band has garnered in the past few years, Tinariwen refuses to stray from the spirit and commitment to their people, their heritage and their desert environment that brought them together years ago.

The English Afro-folk-pop ensemble The Melodic will open the show at 8 p.m. They are much influenced by the martyred Chilean folk singer Victor Jara and their sound has been compared to the indie-rock bands The Decemberists and Beirut.

Friday's concert is presented with support from the Ohio University Performing Arts Series, Ohio University African Studies and Arts for Ohio. There are a limited number of free tickets available for Ohio University students.

Stuart’s Opera House is located at 52 Public Square in Nelsonville, Ohio. More information can be found at stuartsoperahouse.org or by calling 740-753-1924.