They are fearless and unapologetic as old and new fans look and listen in disbelief at the onstage speed and aggression coming from one of the most honest bands on the independent circuit today. Some of the instruments are bluegrass, and maybe there is something among their sound Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley would have approved of. But there are also nods to metal, outlaw country and punk, as Kansas’ Split Lip Rayfield wears many musical influences on many musical sleeves. The trio of banjo, guitar player and vocalist Eric Mardis, mandolin, guitar player and vocalist Wayne Gottstine, and vocalist and gas-tank bass player Jeff Eaton will return to Durango on Tuesday when they play the Balcony Backstage.
Bluegrass popularity has spawned a handful of black T-shirt-clad metalheads wailing on acoustic instruments, but as Split Lip Rayfield moves into its third decade, they’re recognized as innovators in the “punk-grassabilly” genre, or whatever genre you put them in as they sing about train wrecks and murder, jilted lovers and factory jobs, car crashes and redneck tailgate dreams via country shuffles, aggressive ballads and straight up rock ’n’ roll. For fans of live music, missing this would be stupid. Bluegrass and alternative roots people could be drawn to its acoustic appeal, while fans of punk and metal should bow to their aggression and tempo. It’s a rock band for sure, but there’s broad appeal via the musical ground covered. And for god-sake, Eaton plays a one-of-a-kind bass built from a gas tank from a 1970s-era Ford automobile.
Split Lip Rayfields first record in eight years will come out this fall, and they continue to make music on their own terms, an ideology they’ve maintained as they came and went with Bloodshot Records, and dealt with losing founding member Kirk Rundstrom to cancer in 2007.
“I think the fact that it was a happy accident in the first place, the band just happened,” said Mardis. “We all get along; no one had any debilitating Nikki Sixx-style heroin addictions, and it just continues. We all have done other things, and we branch out, and this always been a creative crossroads when the three of us – or four of us – would get together. It just kind of happened, and so it continues.”
Mardis likes metal, and speaking to him about the band somehow branched out to Ronnie James Dio, along with how the time spent recording their forthcoming record was a longer time spent than when Boston recorded the questionable “Third Stage.” It also revealed a general excitement about their new record, what he describes as a dark album thick with guitars. Conversation also reveals the closeness of the band members, a camaraderie that comes out in records and on stage, and a uniqueness to a band that has held onto a core lineup as they move into their 22nd year.
“What I’ve said a million times is that being in a band is like having a couple of ugly, platonic wives that you travel around with,” said Mardis. “It’s like having this bonded relationship. I’m creeping myself out now, it’s not that bad, but if you live in a bubble like a van with people for that long you get pretty close.”