On a humid evening this past August, a crowd of costumed, bicycle-riding revel makers took to the streets of DC, led on their wheels by a six-piece, traditional, old-time jazz band, instruments in tow (including the upright bass) on makeshift pedicabs. To a tourist, the sight must have been one to behold; but to the Bumper Jacksons, it was just another Wednesday.
Since forming in 2012, core duo Jess Eliot Myhre and Chris Ousley, along with the rest of the Bumper Jacksons, have quickly become one of the District’s most well-known and eclectic musical ensembles. When they’re not officially performing, which is rare, members of the band find a myriad of other ways to bring music – and camaraderie – to the city they call home. Partnering with local bikeshop BicycleSPACE for a “social ride” is a prime example.
“I asked [BicycleSPACE] to help do a special edition of [one of their social rides] as a backdrop for a music video,” says vocalist/guitarist Ousley. “They came out in awesome costumes, I built a drum riser on the back of a pedicab and the band played tunes all through downtown with a big crowd of happy people. Lots of bikers joined in with us when they saw us passing by. It was awesome.”
The resulting video will be released this spring with the band’s forthcoming third album.
The band’s sound and look are old-timey, but not without sass – a bit like a neon victophone. It’s solidly jazzy (notes of frontwoman Myhre’s stint in New Orleans float into many of the tunes), slightly bluesy, but mostly simply makes you want to find a sweetheart and an old pair of swing shoes to shine up and take out dancing – like really dancing.
Which makes sense. Ousley (a “Maryland boy”) and Myhre (a “native Floridian”) met playing in a contradance/square dance band, the Sligo Creek Stompers, where Ousley says “[the two] first discovered [their] musical chemistry and the joy of melding, developing and remixing the diverse sounds of American roots music.”
From there, both a musical and personal relationship grew, and as the duo toured the country, they began slowly adding other musicians from the circuit – with a pedal steel here, a suitcase percussion there – until they rounded out their now steady lineup with Brian Priebe (trombone), Dave Hadley (pedal steel), Dan Samuels (percussion) and Alex Lacquement (bass).
“Our sound matured and grew organically,” Ousley says. “We didn’t plan to have the instruments we have. We just took the players whose personalities and musical interests fit our own. It’s really fun to have more colors to paint with.”
Their repertoire is indeed colorful, and the band’s second album, Too Big World, showcases the breadth of derivations on traditional folk that the Bumper Jacksons are capable of blending. Slow and lazy river harmonic rounds in “Jubilee” fade into sultry come-hither vocals from Myhre in “Trouble in Mind.” “Bully of the Town” is big and brassy, whereas “Adventure Story” is a modern lullaby a la Brandi Carlile.
In the short span of four years, the Bumper Jacksons have managed to cover a lot of ground. While they call DC home, they’ve traveled the country – playing venues big and small – from intimate lounge shows to traditional theaters, and barns and big festivals to the Kennedy Center. At the end of this month, the band is excited to raise “The Barns” at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va.
“It’s seriously one of the best sounding rooms in the area – few places come close. We’ve been in the audience so many times, and we’re really looking forward to being on the other side.”
And while it is no surprise that fans at events like the Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival or Red Wing Roots Music Festival revel at the sight of Myhre’s washboard bass, one doesn’t immediately place a band singing about johnnycakes and venison, and sassafras tea and the Delta, in the same mental space as a city most musically famous for go-go and punk. Their appeal to the hometown crowd is perhaps an even bigger testament to the “it” that they seem to have. And though the members each have their own “spirit places” – New Orleans, St. John, Colorado, Philadelphia, Baltimore – DC inspires them to make the music they do. Myhre and Ousley agree.
“There’s an amazing entrepreneurial culture [here] that pervades more than the startups and NGOs. [They] see it in the artistic crowd, community organizations and more. It’s exciting.”
That entrepreneurial spirit is certainly alive for the Bumper Jacksons, who are able to make a living playing – the band is their main source of income – and paying it forward. Myhre, who built her own original washboard bass, makes, sells and teaches workshops on the classic American roots instrument. Other bandmates lead community classes in improv, old-time ukulele, upright bass and 1920s guitar – bringing it all back home to bike-riding bassists and their musical mission “to foster learning and growth in [their] audiences and [themselves].”
Catch the Bumper Jacksons at Wolf Trap on Saturday, October 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22-$25. Learn more at www.wolftrap.org .
The Barns at Wolf Trap: 1635 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703- 255-1900; www.wolftrap.org