Elephant Revival Pushes the Boundaries of Acoustic Music

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Nederland’s Elephant Revival is a band beginning a new chapter. Coming off the release of a live album and DVD called Sands of Now, the band is working on a new studio album in Maine with sound engineer (and longtime Josh Ritter collaborator) Sam Kassirer.

According to violinist Bridget Law, Sands of Now is a snapshot of the band’s first nine years, which saw Elephant Revival grow from a fledgling group of friends united by a love of acoustic music to a musical force popular enough to headline Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Since its inception, Elephant Revival has been an imaginative, engaging group, capable of changing people’s perceptions of what Americana can be.

Multi-instrumentalist Dango Rose grew up in Chicago in the ’90s; like most of his friends, he was a fan of alternative rock, but he found himself drawn to the Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music following a fateful encounter as a teenager. “I was lucky enough to have a bluegrass band move in next door when I was fifteen years old, and they used to have rehearsals in the driveway,” recalls Rose. “I spent time in southern Appalachia and on the streets of New Orleans, and that shaped a lot of my transition into more traditional music.”

Singer and percussionist Bonnie Paine met guitarist/banjo player and fellow vocalist Daniel Rodriguez in New London, Connecticut, where Rodriguez hosted open mikes and worked the door at a club called Station 58. Paine was in town visiting a friend, and she and Rodriguez hit it off immediately. They hung out on a rooftop singing and playing music together until dawn. Around that same time, Law and Rose met at a bluegrass festival in Colorado and became fast friends. And shortly after that, they met Paine while visiting Oklahoma.

An unexplainable bond formed between the musicians, an intuitive principle that flows through everything they do. The four possess a willingness to think things through, to talk and listen to each other — essential components in any successful band or partnership.

Law was finishing up her studies at the University of Colorado Boulder when Paine, Rodriguez and Rose announced that they were relocating to Nederland. Part of their decision had to do with the longtime tradition of musicians flocking to the mountain town, including those who recorded at the now-defunct Caribou Ranch studio in the ’70s and ’80s.

In September 2006, Law, Paine, Rodriguez and Rose formed Elephant Revival with the talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Sage Cook, who had his own sound system and the bus the band would take on its early tours. That lineup remains mostly intact today; earlier this year, Cook stepped away from the band to devote himself full-time to his current project, We Dream Dawn, and, in an amicable transition, Charlie Rose (no relation to Dango) took his place.

At first, Elephant Revival played at places like the Gold Hill Inn, the Stage Stop, the Acoustic Coffee House, the Pioneer Inn and First Street — all venues in or near Nederland. Part of the town’s unique musical identity is exemplified by its weekly “picks” — mostly acoustic-music jam sessions — in which Elephant Revival has been a frequent participant over the years.

All of the above might give the impression that the band is working purely in the established tradition of old-timey music — and the roots of that music are definitely there. But a listen to any of Elephant Revival’s fine albums, from its self-titled debut to Break in the Clouds, These Changing Skies and It’s Alive, reveals a quintet capable of playing with those conventions and expanding on them. It’s Alive, especially, shows a depth of sound and emotional colorings that’s not heard much in music grounded in folk and bluegrass. And yet the compositions and the execution of the music retain an essential quality of those styles — what Nick Forster of Hot Rize has called “human-sized music.”

“I like to joke that you can’t take Marshall stacks into the woods very easily,” says Law. “I think a lot of us veered toward acoustic instruments because of their portability. We can break them out on the street, in the woods or around a bonfire or wherever and play them un-amplified. Which gets to the heart of why we all play music, which is to engage in that very intrinsic, natural, expressive emotional level that you don’t need to jump through a bunch of hoops to get through. You can just be there.”

Still, there’s an ineffable something that elevates the band’s music above the mundane. The songs may come from personal experience, but they really do aim at universal truths.

“[It’s] the part of ourselves that feels like it’s not just ourselves,” Law says. “It’s almost like we as artists are conduits for the bigger picture — especially when the environment is in trouble and there are messages that we are all hearing. My friends who write the lyrics aren’t just speaking to their own experiences, but they’re talking about things we’re all feeling on some level. And they’re doing it so poetically that they can draw anyone into the emotional experience there.”

Elephant Revival looks to further tap into that primal understanding with the evocative art on its album covers. The first three were done by Paine, but the last couple of releases have featured the work of painter Nathan Hutchinson.

Collectively, the group presents its music and its energy with the intention of creating a communal spirit among its members and with its audience.

The musicians plan to translate this concept into a festival called The Art of All Forms. Though they’re still in the process of formulating ideas for the fest, Dango Rose says they hope to get it off the ground within the next few years.

In the meantime, the new album is slated for release next spring, and Elephant Revival will be playing a sold-out show at Red Rocks this Saturday.

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