It was their first time in Blacksburg, and mandolinist Jay Lapp’s birthday. It was a special night to welcome The Steel Wheels to our town.
Upon listening to the Steel Wheels, you’ll catch Trent Wagler’s fiery, frayed voice as their signature feature. But as a group they have even more to offer. Wagler alone can write, sing, play, tap, and sometimes even “dance.” Each man owns his instruments well. They work like brothers. And their harmony surprises you with synchronized ups and downs like the very mountains of Shenandoah.
Local artist Kat Mills opened with her style of folks music reminiscent of 60s-era folk and protest songs. She lent a voice and articulated strength that set just the right tone for the rest of the night.
The Steel Wheels opened up with a handful of tunes mostly from Lay Down, Lay Low, including “Breaking Like the Sun,” which itself broke out a warmth into the room, and “Halfway to Heaven.”
In between the songs, the band spoke of their joy to play for the first time in our city, on Jay’s birthday, and meet such a receptive crowd. The evening felt intimate, and it wasn’t just the stage bulbs. Trent knows how to court an audience, not just with his ragged range of vocals, but with the rhythm and expression of his whole self. Jay plays all his strings with effortless fervor and lends his backup vocals with both rehearsed timing and emotional spontaneity. Eric Brubaker handles the fiddle like a giant plucking a comet, and Brian Dickel lays low without missing a beat on the upright. They are a team with a single vision for roots music, a blessed combination.
These boys reach for the roots of a past generation, but their passion and energy relate to youthful audiences. You might not stand up to bounce, but you won’t get too relaxed either—not before you begin leaning intently, bouncing your legs, clapping, or even leaping up to clog like one couple did. It also depends on the venue. in downtown Blacksburg, college faculty probably outnumbered students in attendance.
A good number of songs were performed nearly free of accompaniment, four-part harmony melodies kept in tune by a tambourine or rain stick (not the kind that sounds like rain—the kind that sounds like steps in puddles). Songs like the haunting “Rain in the Valley” This is where the picking is peeled away to reveal the deep, heartfelt steam-powered love of music, storytelling, and lyricism that bring them together and draw in audiences. From their new upcoming album, Leave Something Behind, they treated us to “Winter is Coming,” a plaintive effort at surviving harsh times ahead, followed by “Find Your Mountain,” a metaphorical call that inspires listeners as much as their formation and mission.
I expect Blacksburg to be another important train stop on their path to even wider success, but I also hope they keep chugging along in the same formula that have earned them respect and admiration from an ever-growing, appreciative fan base. Treat yourself, your friends, and your family to a Steel Wheels show.