At a rock 'n' roll cattle call last year in Austin, Texas, one band really caught the ear of Robin Hurley, managing director of Rough Trade, England's independent record label. Over three days, he heard many of the 100 or so bands that had shown up to perform for company bigwigs, but Souled American, a Chicago group, "really stood out as several leagues above what I'd been seeing there," he said. "I thought they were one of the most exciting bands I'd seen in a long time. It was their diversity that appealed to me."
Hurley confides that his company has "ambitious expansion plans in America," and Souled American is one of the bands Rough Trade is counting on to make the label a force on the American music scene. In late September, Rough Trade released Fe, Souled American's first album. Hurley calls it an "extremely strong album which gets better with each play."
Souled American has been making the circuit of the Cubby Bear Lounge, Phyllis' Musical Inn, and the Metro for the past couple of years, working out a wholly original sound. The CMJ New Music Report, the bible for college radio programmers, recently likened it to "the hippie/punk/folk aesthetic" of bands like Violent Femmes, Meat Puppets, and Camper Van Beethoven, but "with equal parts jug/street band, country & western, and Southern Soul" added to make the sound unique.
Which points up the problem writers have had in describing Souled American--there doesn't seem to be a label long enough to fit their kaleidoscopic range of genres.
Joe Adducci, Chris Grigoroff, Scott Tuma, and Jamey Barnard--the three guitarists and a drummer that make up Souled American--steadfastly resist attempts to pigeonhole the band. A writer once identified Souled American's influences as reggae, country, and Louisiana swamp music. Grigoroff (the band's lead singer) allowed, "We're a product of who we are. If you've heard those things, they're probably there."
Grigoroff says that the only thing the band is consciously trying to get across is a unique style of instrumentation. Adducci, the group's bass player, explains that if he could play "straight country in the ultimate groove," he probably would, but what he's doing instead is "trying to play the way I live." How he lives remains an unasked question, but Adducci, Barnard, and Grigoroff are originally from downstate Illinois, and that may account for the twangy country and traditional bluegrass sounds at least.
The point that Souled American return to again and again is that they are playing music that reflects them, and they don't want to trick it up or make it easier or explain how it works. It's there just to be listened to worked at, if a listener is so inclined, merely accepted, or ignored. That's the listener's end of the deal.
"Music's really private for me," Grigoroff said. For Grigoroff, music is also "the most fun thing in life. A lot of people don't ever get to do what is the most fun thing in life for them, so then they get weird and take it out on other people."
For all of their artistry, Souled American is a loose group onstage. Adducci moves freely to the rhythm of his bass, and drummer Barnard teases the audience with his bizarre mimicry of characters both familiar and obscure. One of Barnard's high pitched, screechy Yoko Ono bits went like this: "All those Beatles come over to the house, drink all our coffee, bring all them girls over, they make me so mad, John, I'm not gonna have it. I don't care who they are, they're not practicing at our house no more." Some of Barnard's not-so-famous characters, like Dr. Brad, a legendary beer-drinking doctor buddy of the band's, are offered as a semishared private joke.
The band's pleasure in the music they play came across in the Fe recording sessions. The album has 12 songs (14 on cassette and compact disc) ranging from the centuries-old antiwar song "Soldier's Joy" to the sly sarcasm of Adducci's putdown of know-it-alls, "Feel Better."
"We put the songs on the album that we were playing the best at the time," said Grigoroff. "We may have played a couple of them in a way that we might not ever play them again, but that's what was there at the time."
Fe is available at record shops. Those who want to check out the band in person can catch them tomorrow, October 15, at the Cabaret Metro, 3730 N. Clark, starting at about 11 PM. Tickets are $6. Phone 549-0203 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeff Hamand.