River Wheel is exclusively a touring band.
It has to be — guitarist Nick DiSebastian and banjoist Kyle Tuttle, who studied at Berklee College of Music, both live in Boston, while bassist Charles Muench and fiddler/mandolinist Oliver Craven live in Lancaster, Pa. The only time the four musicians are together is when they hit the road for a week or so at a time, playing their jazz-inflected folk and bluegrass throughout the Northeast.
The band’s current trek will bring them to New York for the first time, with two nights at the Moon & River Café on Monday and Tuesday. This time, the weeklong tour kicked off in Hartford, Conn., one of the band’s frequent stops, and ends next week in Lancaster (the group either starts or stops its tours in one of its members’ hometowns).
with The StringDusters
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
Where: Moon & River Café, 115 S. Ferry St., Schenectady
How Much: $5-$10 donation
More Info: 382-1938, www.moonandrivercafe.com
“We’ll meet in the town where the first gig is, maybe two days before or one day before and rehearse a little bit, get used to playing with each other again,” Tuttle said from his Boston home.
“In some ways, it limits rehearsal time a lot. But in other ways, it kind of puts us in a different space than we are normally in. When we are together for a week on the road, we play a gig every night, and then we also spend a lot of time playing during the day at whoever’s house we’re staying at, so there are periods of extreme amounts of work getting done, and long periods of no work getting done.”
This spontaneity has fueled the band’s original music since its members came together in 2010 to record their full-length “The Sound We Made.” Craven, Muench and DiSebastian are all originally from Lancaster, and had grown up playing together. Tuttle, originally from Georgia, had played with DiSebastian at Berklee.
The weeklong recording session in Lancaster found the four musicians instantly bonding, despite it being the first time they had played together.
“It was a lot of fun — it was actually surprisingly easy,” Tuttle said. “While we hadn’t all played together, we had all played individually with each other, more or less, and we kind of knew — we had a similar vision for the end of it.”
All four share an interest in traditional folk music. Tuttle and Craven both grew up surrounded by the acoustic music of their respective regions and quickly began playing it — Tuttle was 5 when he first picked up an acoustic guitar.
After going through a rock ’n’ roll phase, he received a banjo from his grandfather at age 16. It was soon the only instrument he would play, and his dedication led him to study jazz composition and theory at Berklee.
He met DiSebastian in a bluegrass ensemble class — essentially a band in a classroom setting. Both shared an interest in folk traditions, along with a strong background in jazz composition. Tuttle cites jazz greats Cannonball Adderley and Tal Farlow alongside more typical banjo influences Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck. The jazz component would come into play heavily in developing River Wheel’s sound (Muench also has a background in the style).
“I think it allows us to take the music to a lot of places, specifically harmonically speaking, that bluegrass bands don’t often go,” Tuttle said. “One of the things with Oliver, who’s the lead singer, and myself both having grown up around folk music, is we’re able to maintain a strong rooting in it. There’s a lot of bluegrass bands out there doing very progressive, very interesting things, without holding much of a reverence for the original music, for these instruments.”
Rooted in tradition
The band always tries to keep its sound rooted in tradition, even with its more progressive elements. Most of the songs on the album are original, but since its release the group has been working more traditional material into its sets.
“The biggest thing that changed once we started hitting the road more was the ability to kind of take traditional material and shape it in our own kind of way — enough to put our signature or stamp on it, but still have people recognize that we’re playing traditional music,” Tuttle said. “That’s probably my favorite thing about that band, our ability to take traditional material — we do a lot of old Bill Monroe songs — and turn it into something that sounds pretty modern.”