dynamic duo: david wax and suz slezak
David Wax Museum’s multicultural strings
David Wax Museum has taken the sounds of Southern Appalachia on a journey south of the border. Delivering a sonic style the band members have self-branded “Mexo-Americana,” the dynamic duo combines various elements of American roots music with a traditional style of Mexican folk called Son Jarocho to create an aggressive hybrid of acoustic rock.
Fiddler Suz Slezak grew up on a family farm in central Virginia, where she immersed herself in old-time mountain sounds and learned Irish fiddle tunes. She headed north to Wellesley College in Boston and in 2007 formed the band with partner David Wax, who took a year off from his time at Harvard to study old folk sounds in Mexico. Together they’ve created a high-energy string fusion that blends quick-paced Latin rhythms and soaring, harmony-driven call-and-response vocals with an indie edge. It’s garnered the band a loyal following across the country and landed the group some big gigs with the Avett Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
On stage, Wax furiously strums his jarana—an eight-string traditional Mexican guitar—while Slezak switches between her native fiddle, accordion, keys, and the primal percussion of a donkey jawbone. The two core members are now augmented by Greg Glassman on bass and Phillip Mayer on drums. They also add the loud brass accents of a horn section during bigger shows.
“We use traditional Mexican instruments, so that will always be part of our sound,” says Slezak. “But with guitar, bass, and drums we’re definitely finding a rock sound on stage.”
That’s evident on the band’s latest album, Knock Knock Get Up, which was released last fall. While the effort contains plenty of the band’s now-trademark energetic global rhythms (“Harder Before It Gets Easier” and “Vivian”), the album’s lead track, “Will You Be Sleeping?,” gives its cross-cultural groove the melodic flair of keyboard flourishes and a tuneful hook that could easily reach beyond the underground. On “A Dog in This Fight” the band lets an acoustic punk stomp swirl into some experimental weirdness.
The album incubated with some songwriting sessions in sunny Southern Mexico last winter. In a twist of contrast, the band members then flew to rural western Maine and recorded in an old farmhouse with producer Sam Kassirer.
“We spent three weeks living there in the dead of winter, so we took our time and added plenty of layers,” Slezak explains. “When you’re in close quarters cooking three meals a day for each other and discussing what’s happening with the music at every step, you can flesh things out on a conceptual level.
“A lot people have told me they feel like this is a rock record. We are continuing to incorporate more electric sounds and new ideas. We still have our own sound, but to me it’s encouraging that we’re doing some growing.”
While Wax handles most of the band’s singing, Slezak takes a turn at lead on the delicate ballad “Wondrous Love.” It’s the one song on Knock Knock Get Up that’s firmly planted in American soil, and a reminder that, much like her fiddle playing, the band’s world explorations have the Blue Ridge in their DNA.
“We all come from different backgrounds in music,” she adds. “When I pick up a fiddle, I think you can definitely hear the roots of where I’m from. I still bring a style that I learned from playing with people around Charlottesville. That’s still an important part of me and what I bring to the band.”
This month the band will open for alt-country songstress Tift Merritt on a run of dates through the South in Knoxville, Tenn., (2/21), Asheville, N.C., (2/22), and Atlanta (2/23). •
Bluegrass History Revisited
The Bluegrass Album Band was a beloved supergroup of picking legends that got together 30 years ago with the intention of making one album. The band was assembled by guitar master Tony Rice back in 1980 and featured banjo legend J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson on mandolin, fiddler Bobby Hicks, and bassist Todd Phillips. The band’s debut was so successful that tour dates and five more albums followed. While members eventually went back to successful solo careers and onto other projects, the band will take the stage together for the first time since 1990 this month. The Bluegrass Album Band will be the Saturday headliners at Bluegrass First Class, a two-day winter festival that’s taking place February 15-17 at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville, N.C. In its 18th straight year, the fest will feature a stacked line-up of picking heroes including Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, the Grascals, the Lonesome River Band, and Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. bluegrassfirstclass.com