It's a packed Tuesday night at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups, and the crowd doesn't pay much attention when three young gentlemen wearing dapper hats and sharp trousers take the stage. But less than a minute into the trio's set, most of the room is captivated. Two of the men share singing duties, exploring the deep, pained voices of the blues. Occasional hootenanny-style off-microphone hollering energizes the audience, as does a mournful, wailing harmonica.
A previously unmoved patron with a gentle face like fine, worn leather cracks a smile. He releases an exhilarated "Hot damn!" and commences tapping his toes and beating out rhythms on his polyester-covered thigh. The Rum Drum Ramblers have won over a new fan — an increasingly familiar occurrence to anyone who's seen the group live since it started playing together in 2007.
To the uninitiated, the Ramblers might seem like an atypical blues band. The group features three young white kids in their early twenties, all of whom have roots in the punk scene. (Their previous groups include the Vultures and Nineteen.) But guitarist Mat Wilson, bassist Joey Glynn and harmonica player Ryan Koenig are no dilettantes, and they often look to their DIY roots for guidance. The group averaged three performances a week in 2008 and will perform anywhere; favorite haunts include pizza joints, rock clubs and even street corners. As Wilson explains, "The variety of places we played this year was just ridiculous. We've taken so many random gigs. You have no clue — I have no clue where we'll pop up."
And invites aren't even necessary — sometimes, the band will just host its own damn party. The Ramblers' label, St. Louis' own Big Muddy Records, threw one hell of a hoedown this summer at a pavilion in Tower Grove Park. Lit by the moon and mountains of tiny tea candles, a couple hundred revelers passed bottles of hooch, shook their tail feathers and reclined on quilts in the grass. The trio's set was acoustic but powerful, spreading energy and good vibes out into the warm, dark night.
That spirit lives on in the band's debut recording, Hey Lordy Mama Mama Get Up and Go. It's an electric, lively EP that sounds polished — but still preserves the rawness and passion of its shows. In between sets at BB's, we caught up with Mat Wilson and Ryan Koenig and discussed what makes the Rum Drum Ramblers tick.
B-sides: Tell me about why you chose to play all of the different places you played last year.
Ryan Koenig: If you just play the same club every week, you just get the same crowd. When we play BB's we draw the blues people. When we play the Blues City Deli, we draw from that neighborhood. When we play CBGB, we draw all the punk rock[ers] and the young community that hangs out on South Grand.
Mat Wilson: As a blues band, we can drag some shit out and entertain people for four hours, or we can step in CBGB and play 30 minutes of material and kill it. We can also play an electric set or an acoustic set, or a set with horns and a drummer or without it, or with guest players. The fact that we can do anything like that at a show makes it fresh.
What do you guys think you sound like? What's your inspiration?
Wilson: I would say, like...I'm pulling from pre-war Chicago blues. Like, the first electric blues.
Koenig: I'm into a lot of the country blues and just country in general. But then I also like a lot of the Chicago stuff and the New Orleans stuff. I tell people it's just American music.
Wilson: Yeah, American music. I like it when people call us Americana more than blues 'cause it's not like we're...hoochie-coochie men. [Laughs] Our thing is getting as much variety as possible and not just sticking to clubs in the blues scene. Because I've seen enough of it, and we can totally do it with a punk-rock ethic and kind of be troubadours with what we're doing. We don't need the blues society to book a blues show. We can bring a blues show any fuckin' place we set up and play.
What music do you have in common that you all love?
Wilson: Jimmy Reed. Otis Rush. Magic fuckin' Sam. A lot of that more obscure Chicago blues. Bo Diddley. Mississippi Sheiks, big time.
Koenig: Also, our same tastes include the Clash and the Damned, Johnny Thunders and the Circle Jerks.
Wilson: Punk rock definitely came first for me, but it wasn't until I picked up a Muddy Waters record and John Lee Hooker record until I realized those dudes were punk as fuck. And I didn't think that because I wanted everything to be punk rock, but because I recognized an intensity that was there.
Koenig: One thing I think modern rock lacks is intensity. I think the way to bring the intensity back to live music and to clubs is to be playing stuff that's not just what's out there now. To show people that it's still alive, I guess.
Wilson: I think that blues is definitely the original struggle music, just as I saw punk rock when I got into it. Now we're going through historical times just as they were then. So if you hear some new material that reflects on what's going on now, it might be interesting. We know that blues didn't die. Punk rock didn't die.