Getting to Know Roosevelt Dime

The New York Times has called Roosevelt Dime a “perpetual crowd pleaser.”  After seeing them in concert at Club Passim recently, I’d have to second that evaluation.  Their show has a clear rhythm and sense to it—each song escalating and building upon the next.  The audience comes along for the ride—a joyous ride at that!   Roosevelt Dime obviously tickled the musical taste buds of the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artists judges this year.  They were one of 24 acts chosen to appear as part of the Emerging Artist showcase on August 2.

Falcon Ridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary the first weekend in August and the Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).*  The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.

To learn more about Roosevelt Dime, visit their website.

Here’s a recent video of Roosevelt Dime playing “Calvary.”

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You refer to the band as “King’s County Steamboat Soul” — a nod to Brooklyn,and a nod to the southern roots of jug music.  Is that what you were getting at with that description?

Absolutely. The Kings County bit refers to the fact that the band is based out Brooklyn, which is really a breeding ground and melting pot for all kinds of music that we’re influenced by – folk, indie rock, jazz, etc…. It’s a really vibrant culture where all sorts of traditions in everything from music to food to fashion are being adopted and treated through a more contemporary lens, which is right in line with what we are doing. The Steamboat Soul came out of the idea of imagining a riverboat ride down the Mississippi picking up all the great musical traditions along the way – the blues of St Louis and over in Chicago, the soul and jug band traditions from Memphis, and of course the jazz from New Orleans. The phrase really seems to resonate with people, and even though it’s a bit abstract, when they hear it they can really envision the vibe of our music.

How did a bunch of guys in Brooklyn start thinking about a jug band type group with such eclectic instruments?  Trumpets and woodwinds are a slightly different element in this kind of music.  Did you do much experimenting to see if it worked?

I really got interested in some of the jug band music when I started to learn how many of the great rock and blues bands (most notably the Grateful Dead) had early roots in that music. Eben played in a jug band while we were at school together at Oberlin College. So that style was on our radar when we started writing music together, although we were always interested in taking those influences in a different direction. It was at the release party for our first record, Crooked Roots, that the seeds were planted for what the band would become. Eben had written some horn parts for several of the tracks, and we decided to have a horn section play live for the record release. Sure enough, those were the tunes that really resonated with this sound we had been cultivating, and went over really well with the audience. Two of the players, Hardin Butcher (trumpet), and Seth Paris (clarinet / sax), really took a liking to what we were doing, and we had the idea to try our hand at busking just for kicks and to make a little extra dough.  We spent the whole summer of 2009 street performing in NYC in Union Square, Washington Square Park, and Central Park. It was in the sweaty summer streets of NYC where the band really cut its teeth and became what it is now. We were all bringing what we knew and loved: folk, bluegrass, soul, New-Orleans, big-band, swing, and blues, and just letting it combine in new ways in front of a live audience. When we began to assemble big crowds of busy jaded New Yorkers, stopping along their busy commutes to dance and clap along, we knew we had hit the right formula.

Tell us about each of the members of the band and what their backgrounds are!

I (Andrew Green) grew up in NYC playing guitar and bass in rock bands, and didn’t really get turned on to folk and bluegrass until I got to college, where I heard some great players first hand. I started dabbling on the banjo, and became increasingly serious about it over the following years. Right away though, I was drawn to it as a writing tool and as an alternative to the guitar as the main harmonic center for a band. John Hartford is a big inspiration to my playing and writing for that reason.

Eben Pariser (bass/vocals) is from Camden, ME and his background is as a jazz and blues guitar player. He picked up bass when we started writing songs together and has run with it since. He comes from more of a classic soul and R&B background, so he brings that Ray Charles and Otis Redding vibe.

Tony Montalbano (drums) is from Fresno, CA originally. He’s kind of a musical wizard and can play pretty much any instrument he gets his hands on. He’s a really dynamic and responsive drummer, which is crucial for the number of different styles that we cover.

Seth Paris (sax/clarinet) is from San Rafael, CA. His tastes are pretty varied for a jazz school horn player. For the combination of styles that we strive for, it takes more than just blowing jazz solos over traditional folk tunes. He’s got a great knowledge of American folk, as well as swing and big band. He has also spent time in Ghana studying brass band music, and he leads his own band in that style as well as bringing that sensibility to our arrangements.

Has the bucket pole been played since the very beginning?  That’s not an instrument you see every day!

The gut bucket bass has its roots in our street performing days. We needed a setup that we could strap on our backs and take on the subway. It definitely got peoples’ attention, and it still does to this day.

I understand that you had an interesting encounter at the airport when you attempted to travel with the bucket pole.  The TSA were not amused?

On our way out to California this past spring, Eben got held up pretty good at the security checkpoint as his bucket pole was seized by the ever diligent TSA officers at Newark Liberty Airport. Despite his protests that it was part of a musical instrument and not a WMD (and even his offer to set it up and play it for them), they did not budge. So like any good tour, our first stop was a Home Depot in Fresno to go instrument shopping.

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Who does most of the songwriting in the group?

Eben and I do the majority of the writing. Our writing process is more of an individual effort, but the arranging process is very much done within the group as whole. Eben or I generally bring a more or less fully conceived song (as far as the lyrics, chords, and melody) to the table, and we’ll workshop different ideas and experiment with adding vocal harmonies and different instrumentation. We’ll often try to work the new material into our live set pretty quickly so we can gauge how it goes over in that setting while it’s still fresh, because that’s ultimately the context in which the song has to stand up. So while the original writing of the song may be a finite process, they’re constantly changing and evolving as we try to keep them fresh in a live setting and bring something new to them every time. We are doing more co-writing now as well, and it has resulted in some nice results like “Helpless” from Steamboat Soul. We have at least one more co-write on our upcoming record, and have been trying to co-write more and more lately. There’s something really special about the ease with which we can sit down and start riffing or work-shopping lyrics at this point. There is just no apprehension- so much freedom to fail, and that’s where the great stuff comes from I think, that feeling of safety and confidence and lack of judgment from a writing partner.

There’s a new CD coming soon.  Any new surprises for us to look forward to?

One new direction that we’ve been exploring is the electric guitar. After being exclusively banjo-centric all these years, we’ve started incorporating some different sounds and textures with the guitar. I’ve still got it tuned like a banjo (a la Keith Richards) so the voicings and harmony are still in line with what we’ve done previously, but we are really excited about the dynamic range that the guitar adds. This new record really captures the sound and vision of the band better than anything we’ve done to date, and we could not be more excited for our fans to hear it.

 Roosevelt Dime photo: Kate Reeder

*The judging panel changes year to year. Many thanks to this year’s panel, Carter Smith, producer of Common Ground Community Concerts in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, Dennis O’Brien, talent buyer for the Newtown Theater in Newtown PA and Kathy Sands-Boehmer, booker for the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead MA now in its 43rd year of presenting great acoustic music.

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