The Last Revel: I thought folk was punk with acoustic instruments

The Last Revel: I thought folk was punk with acoustic instruments
Photo by Hope Thier

Looking to blur the lines of folk and rock, the Last Revel have now been around for a few years. You may have known them formerly as the Bitterroot Band. Their first full-length album Uprooted, takes their stories and sorts them through the human filter, distilling a narrative at its finest.

The band spoke with Gimme Noise before their album release on Saturday at the Turf Club about how they got their start playing in a dive bar in Mankato and the long road that led to Uprooted.

Band Members: Lee Henke, Ryan Acker, Vincenzio "Vinnie" Donatelle

Gimme Noise: How did you meet, and what drew you to start creating together?

Lee Henke: We all met in Mankato while attending college. Ryan and I had been playing together in a couple different bands for a few years before meeting Vinnie. I met Vinnie while trying out a side project. Mohawk and fiddle in hand. Then, he took off to France for awhile and I didn't hear from him until running into him randomly at a bar downtown Mankato. I told him about a new project I was thinking about and asked him if he wanted to come over some night and play some tunes. We talked about our mutual love for Tom Waits and from that moment on we were all good pals who felt open to sharing ideas regardless of how strange they might be. We also found out early on that we cared more about the lyrics and the way the music supports their presentation more than we cared about musical prowess. This made writing together much easier and more focused.

Vinnie Donatelle: I feel like Lee and I tricked each other into being friends. There were times in the beginning when we would have conversations constructed in half truths and relative falsehoods, but we did both like cheap wine, chatting about Tom Waits, and finding folky groups from around the area. After a couple hundred hours of driving together, we wound up having a genuine friendship. I met Ryan through Lee, and I just liked hanging out with them because they were awesome to be around and were generally not destructive individuals which for me, was a huge plus. The fact that between the two of them it became pretty easy to just mess around with some tunes and come up with some good stuff after an hour or two was for me just a nice added bonus.

Gimme Noise: There has been this renaissance of bluegrass/folk sound that has come out of the Midwest in the last few years. Why do you think this is?

Ryan Acker: I think it is partially because of the roots music genres overall emphasis on community rather than celebrity. Folk songs have historically been a celebration of the story and the group of musicians coming together to play, instead of a particular performer. I think that is a value that many people in the Midwest hold about their own ways of life. Generally, I think people are really proud of their communities and cherish their groups of friends and families. And I think that translates into a strong foundation of a local folk music scene.

Gimme Noise: What was it about bluegrass that interested you enough to began playing it?

Vinnie Donatelle: Well I'm not entirely sure we really play bluegrass, not that it really makes all that much of a difference, but we all really get into folk or rootsy music almost anything that has a history to it. Personally I thought, maybe incorrectly that folk music was a few kids with guitars, or any instrument that they could find, sitting on the corner kicking around some tunes. I also thought that folk was basically just punk with acoustic instruments. Nonetheless, I loved how you didn't need a lot to make that music. If you didn't even have an instrument you could just make something up and sing along or find a piece of metal to beat on. I'm pretty certain that accessibility is a big reason why we all got together to craft the songs that we play in the first place.

Lee Henke: Personally, I was sick of turning folk songs in to blues/rock tunes. I was writing songs on my acoustic or a banjo then transposing them to work on electric instruments. This just seemed easier, but it took me a long time to think more simply. I also, think people appreciate simple acoustic sound especially when lyrics and simple melodies are the aspects you are trying to support. This genre is built mostly around stringed instruments.

Gimme Noise: How do you create such a big sound with no percussion and only three members?

Lee Henke: We all enjoy playing multiple instruments. In some cases, at the same time. Just having three members has led us to try a lot of instrument arrangements to support the song in the best way possible. We are three guys trying to fill as many shoes as possible. Vinnie's style of bass playing is more similar to rockabilly which is very percussive and with my kick drum we have a solid rhythm section. Then, we choose the best instruments to fill up the rest of the register. Ryan is the primary crafter of our vocal harmony parts which we use to highlight and build a bigger vocal sound. I should also mention that we tend to lack finesse especially when we are really getting into a song. Simply said, we play very hard and make sure we are playing the right instruments to serve the song.  

Gimme Noise: Can you tell me more about these dive bar gigs? How did they come about? 

Ryan Acker: We started playing a weekly open mic at a dive bar in downtown Mankato before we really were a band. We were writing these energetic and simple three chord songs, and we just wanted to try them out. We made a weekly habit out of playing nearly every Thursday night. Steadily, there were more and more people showing up and our short 15 minute sets would get a little crazier every time. I remember one Thursday specifically where we started playing and the bar was so packed that a few people jumped up on the tables and started dancing along. After that we all agreed that we were on to something and we should see where this takes us. Since then we have put in some hard work touring locally. It's been really motivating to see a steady and consistent growth in the number of people who come out to shows when we travel to places like Duluth, or La Crosse, or Marquette.

Gimme Noise: What was the story you wanted to tell with Uprooted? What's the meaning behind the name?

Lee Henke: There are a couple different reasons we landed on the name Uprooted. The fact that we were able to pack our bags and head to a remote cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to record the album embodies the name. We decided the only way we would get the feeling we wanted to relate to these songs would be to leave home and settle in somewhere to detach ourselves from everything else.

Another reason we settled on the name could be related to our name change in July of 2013. We used to be called the Bitterroot Band but because of legal reasons were forced to change it to the Last Revel. But to me, the main reason we called the album Uprooted is because of the grueling year in which we wrote the songs. In one year we got all of our gear stolen, we had a falling out in the band, and had to change our name. Not to mention, we were all in transitions, new lives colliding with huge changes and being unemployed musicians makes for a genuine feeling of being uprooted. All the songs on the album address this feeling in one way or another so the name just felt right.

Gimme Noise: Any favorite tracks off the album?

Ryan Acker: I really love the track "It's all Been Said." It was fun writing and recording a song that was out of our usual style. The track has a real swanky groove to it. Our friend, Wyatt Cote recorded an electric guitar solo that reminds me of a scene in a classic Western movie. It really added a lot to the song.

Lee Henke: I really like that you can hear the cabin sounds and the crickets in "Give Me A Reason." It kind of gives the song a home.

Vinnie Donatelle: For me the song "Oh Dear" really has a sound and feel that is just raw and real. I'm pleased with how the whole album turned out but this song just has something about it that is profound, something that I can really get behind.

Gimme Noise: For those that have not seen you before, what can they expect to see at the album release show?

Lee Henke: I always feel like our shows are rowdy yet attentive. We always like to give everyone an opportunity to enjoy themselves. There's always lots of dancing and stomping along, other folks hang back and nod along. I am excited to see the general reactions to the new songs. We also have two guest performers joining us for a few tunes too so that should be a fun new twist for everyone.

Ryan Acker: I'm really excited to have our friends from Dead Horses and Bigtree Bonsai joining us for the night. They're two amazing groups that round out the roots genre really well. Fiddles to upright basses, along with electric guitars and full drum sets, its going to be a great variety of music.

The Last Revel will release Uprooted at the Turf Club on Saturday, February 8, 2014 with Dead Horses and Bigtree Bonsai.
21+, $7 adv, $10 door, 8 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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