After taking more than a month-long break from playing shows, Asheville’s kaleidoscopic folk quartet River Whyless is in the early stages of an 11-date East Coast run. Phoning in from Providence, Rhode Island, after a sound check fraught with electronic issues, drummer Alex McWalters remains optimistic about the tour’s third show.
“Tonight will be probably the night we feel the most back in the groove,” he states confidently.
In taking time off from their typically busy tour schedule, McWalters and bandmates Ryan O’Keefe, Halli Anderson and Daniel Shearin spent the entire month of August in the studio composing new material for the forthcoming follow up to their politically charged 2018 full-length, Kindness, A Rebel. While the group is happy to be back on the road, McWalters is honest about where everyone’s heads are at.
“All of our minds are in studio mode. We’re in creative mode,” he admits. “So it can be a little bit frustrating to have to come out and play shows and do the old songs.”
Since the June 2018 release of Kindness, McWalters estimates the band has spent over half a calendar year touring the country in support of the album. The record is propulsive and beautifully adorned, a damning response to the tumultuous political climate since the 2016 presidential election, with songs like “Born in the Right Country” and “War is Kind” making clear the groups’ distaste for escalating social instability across the U.S.
“We weren’t disguising it, we weren’t cloaking anything in metaphor,” McWalters says frankly. “We were being direct in a lot of the things we were writing about and talking about. It was very much … an unabashed statement.”
In the 180-plus days that the band has spent playing those songs live, the response to their progressive message was mostly peaceful. McWalters is quick to point out that the band wasn’t looking for a pat on the back from a like-minded echo chamber. Some of the most rewarding moments, he says, have come through chats with people new to the music who might not share their point of view.
“We’ve had some really great, meaningful conversations with people,” he offers. “Nine times out of 10, we walk away at the end of the conversation shaking hands and either agreeing to disagree or feeling like we’ve each learned something about each other.
“And that was the whole point of the record. It wasn’t just to point the finger at somebody. It was also to be like, ‘Hey, here’s what we think and feel. Let’s have a conversation about it.’”
After the outward political statement of Kindness, River Whyless refocused their songwriting efforts to be more introspective and personal. 2019 has seen the group release two singles: “The Pool,” a pastoral meditation on grief inspired by the passing of a close friend; and “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a cover of the Bob Dylan classic that came into the band’s repertoire after NPR’s Bob Boilen invited them to perform a song meaningful to the entire foursome at a special event during the 2016 Newport Folk Festival.
Both songs shy away from the dynamic beats and intricate instrumental layers of Kindness and its immediate predecessor, 2016’s We All The Light LP, instead highlighting the rich vocal harmonies between O’Keefe, Anderson and Shearin soaring above rolling acoustic fingerpicking and warm string accents.
“We are trying to go more in that direction with this new material we’re working on now,” McWalters offers, though he’s careful not to give away too much about the band’s upcoming work.
“It’s not stripped down to that extent,” he clarifies. We’re trying to make it a little more vocal-forward — focusing on the harmonies and the vocal performance and less of the driving, ornate stuff that’s on the last record.”
The group has been playing “The Pool” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” back to back at recent shows, giving both the audience and band a break within the mostly high energy set. As the only member who doesn’t step up to the mic for vocal harmonies, McWalters laughs when asked how he occupies his time during those numbers.
“Yeah, basically just taking a breather.”
What: River Whyless
Where: New Brookland Tavern, 122 State St.
When: Sunday, Sept. 29, 8 p.m.
With: The Dead Tongues
Price: $15 (all ages)
More: 803-791-4413, newbrooklandtavern.com