“The people in Ann Arbor and around the country know the Ark doesn’t book crap, so it’s an honor to be there and play. The audience comes there expecting a certain level. It’s an affirmation of the artist, but it’s also a real challenge and you want to make sure you’re worthy of it.”
The Ann Arbor Folk Festival is always filled with some of the best surprises. These surprises range from fiddle and banjo players to singer/songwriters to folk superstars, both established and rising – many of which you may never have heard of before but, before their set is complete, you will come to love. The Steel Wheels are definitely one of these types of surprises. They performed on the second night of the 2013 Ann Arbor Folk Festival and nearly brought the house down with their precise harmonies and refreshingly simple, heartfelt acoustic American roots music born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia. However, “acoustic” in this instance doesn’t refer to hushed guitar lullabies but instead front porch instruments like the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and upright bass – and some guitar, too – and, at times, it’s anything but quiet.
When we caught up with group frontman, Trent Wagler, he had nothing but positive things to say about Ann Arbor – a city that one of the group members calls home and the rest of the group thinks of as their second home. In fact, Wagler says that they did two bike tours through Michigan that started in Ann Arbor.
“Once a year, we try to do a tour by bike – it’s sort of our bike to work week, we joke,” he says. “We put our instruments and everything on bicycles, and we go from gig to gig. It’s quite a spectacle. The last one we did in Michigan was in 2011. We started at the Ark and played in Kalamazoo, Benton Harbor and biked all the way to Chicago, which was a blast.”
Wagler says that the bike tour idea started as a way for the band to travel into more communities and connect with people while minimizing their impact on the environment.
“We were really inspired by not only setting a goal for ourselves and achieving it and the experience of the physical side and the challenge of playing a show at the end of the day, but also the stories that you experience along the road of breaking down and total strangers helping you out. It’s just a really neat way to meet people,” he says. “Because of that, I feel a special connection to Michigan because, when you’re on your bike and you’ve got the wind blowing in your hair and you’re fending off the potholes that might be on the road or dealing with the traffic and getting to meet strangers on the road and they’re asking what you’re doing, you just feel a different kind of connection.”
However, the bike tour isn’t the only connection that the group has to Ann Arbor, as their Mandolin player, Jay Lapp, calls Ann Arbor home. As a result, they have performed in Ann Arbor – particularly at the Ark – on several occasions.
“We love the Ark. The audience is great. The sound is great. There’s such a history, and you put all those things together, and it’s a great show,” he says. “The nice thing about the Ark for any band that’s still emerging or establishing themselves is it’s a respected venue. The people in Ann Arbor and around the country know the Ark doesn’t book crap, so it’s an honor to be there and play. The audience comes there expecting a certain level. It’s an affirmation of the artist, but it’s also a real challenge and you want to make sure you’re worthy of it.”
Wagler says that he also appreciates the type of crowd that the Ark draws. “I hate to say it, but sometimes you get an audience and you play a show, and the best compliment that you get afterwards is, ‘I just don’t know how you can remember all those words,’ or something like that. That’s not the kind of feedback you get at the Ark,” he says. “You might get someone who comes and says, ‘I can really tell your mandolin playing is influences by David Grisman,’ or something like that.”
Likewise, Wagler and the rest of the group thoroughly enjoyed playing at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. “It was a great experience top to bottom,” he says.
“It’s a perfect venue – [Hill] auditorium is just unbelievable when you stand on stage and you look at the packed house above you and it just keeps going. And the crowd – there’s no better crowd in the world. I just felt like people were so excited for every act, and they were so receptive. We had a great time, and it was great to meet some of the artists backstage. It was such an honor to be on the bill with Lucinda Williams and Dar Williams and The Head and The Heart and many great musicians.”
Maybe it’s because they’re feeling warm and fuzzy about A2, but The Steel Wheels are rumored to have a very special surprise of their own for the audience at their March 23 Ark performance.
“We’re releasing a new album in April. It’s called ‘No More Rain,’” Wagler says. “We will probably have some pre-release copies by the time we get to the Ark in March. It will not be available online. It will not be available anywhere but at that show in March because we won’t be able to help ourselves but sell them.”
The Steel Wheels also have some other exciting plans on the horizon for this year.
“In July of this year, we are hosting our own music festival. It’s the first year we’re going to do that. It will be in the Shenandoah Valley, and it’s got an amazing lineup,” he says, adding that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band who played at the Grammys with the Black Keys will be on the bill.
“We call it the Red Wing Roots Music Festival,” he says. “We decided to call it a roots music festival just because it’s going to have a lot of different styles of music ranging from bluegrass to jazz to rockabilly to straight folk singer/songwriter and a little bit of Cajun style stuff.”
But despite all of the things on the horizon for The Steel Wheels, Wagler says they are most proud of the fact that they are just as excited to be playing music now as they were when they first started.
“We’ve done so much of it independently and have played by our own rules in terms of not having a record label,” he says. “I just feel like we’re getting to a place where there’s a lot of good stuff to come.”
The Steel Wheels will perform at 8 p.m. on March 23 at the Ark in Ann Arbor. For more information, visit thesteelwheels.com.