Review: “At the Pigeon Club”

In April, I saw Curtis & Reinhard bring down the house in New York in a way I haven’t seen for years in the dreary D.C. music scene. It wasn’t until I heard their album, “At the Pigeon Club,” that I figured out why they’d affected me so much. We live in a time in which American music has developed a lot of complexes; it thinks more about how it looks in the mirror than how well it reaches the clouds. To see a band intuitively and perhaps even unconsciously draw a number of grand old American musical traditions together for the simple purpose of rocking was a breath of fresh mountain air.

Curtis & Reinhard

Clinton Curtis and The Blair Reinhard Band.

“At the Pigeon Club” gives you a lot of fun and no pretensions. Curtis & Reinhard’s roots are planted in the rich, overflowing textures and ever-young sounds of Southern rock. Dense, rambunctious piano licks and feel-good harmonies wrap like a candy wrapper around the songs, but there are hints of Appalachian train-wreck storytelling and the influence of Roscoe Holcomb’s and Ralph Stanley’s stark, haunting tones. Also present are the soft swells of Pete Seeger and the rhythm guitars of Southern and Western hobo music. Hopefully those bruised, twangy old strains will come through even clearer in future albums.

The band benefits from three singular singers: Blaire Reinhard, with a fiery grasp on “No Nothing,” a song that brings hot sticky Southern nights, weeping willows, bourbon, and no money to the mind; Gray Reinhard, whose gentle-ending slides give a sweet soul both to the floodplain music of “Major Crowe” and the Dylan-esque album opener “Back on the Bus”; and Clinton Curtis, whose intimate playing and singing styles make “Different Down Here” and “Riverside Hotel” feel like an old buddy telling you tales of his just-ended wandering, even when the vocals are emerging from the center of some big rock ’n roll.

Years ago, an old friend told me that what made America’s musical culture unique is the lack of a confining musical tradition, and I agree. Undefined by an official culture, royal courts and packed, warring cities, American music is the result of a medley of half-remembered musical traditions competing with the wildness, the vastness of the land. America was built by wanderers, so American music is, at its best, the product of individual journeys into transcendence.

Whether it is distance traveled or the distance of time, music in America is about transit, about seeking love, purpose, and self in the passing minutes and miles. Curtis & Reinhard, both with words and musical style, focus on the stories of coming and going, trudging and strolling that define American music. The band’s open-hearted, sincere draws from folk, country, and Southern influences demonstrate the band’s willingness to share their music not only with the listener, but also with musical ghosts of the past and present.

Fundamentally, what makes Curtis & Reinhard a must-see and must-hear isn’t just the breezy, effortless way they connect with their audience both from stage and studio, nor even how much the musicians love what they do. Rather, it’s that the band does not waste its time going “meta,” instead searching the nooks and crannies to explore that transcendental quality of the American musical tradition, then bringing it all back home within a rollicking Southern rockabilly blues.

That sound, combining Janis Joplin’s heaviness with just a drop of Jimmy Buffett’s sleazy ease and Bob Dylan’s wild, wind-weathered music of the West and Midwest, can’t help but pick you up and take you away. In a music era fraught with insecurity, doubt, and self-questioning, we need bands like this one to jerk us out of our own heads, throw our questions out the window, and tell us to drink our “little bottle of mountain honey wine,” goddammit, or someone else will.