30db – One Man Show (2010)

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by Pico

If a measure of the talent of a band can be measured by the amount of meaningful side projects its members get involved with, then Umphrey’s McGee is beginning to qualify as a very talented bunch. Last year, Jake Cinninger, Kris Meyers and Joel Cummins from my favorite jam-band in rock teamed up with Chris Poland and Roberto Pagliari from OHM to form OHMphrey, and their CD made for some great metal-fusion listening. But Cinninger isn’t Umphrey’s only great guitarist; Brendan Bayliss is no slouch either, and he is also their best lead vocalist. So it would only seem like the right thing to do for him to explore his muse in settings outside UM, and I’m happy to report he’s done just that.

Meet the rock band, 30db.

30db isn’t Brendan’s band, though. It’s his and Yonder Mountain mandolin player Jeff Austin’s band. Not just in name but in the music. And this isn’t one of those forced mashing of two clashing musicians to create an awkward hybrid, but two individuals who came together at a natural junction for both of them. Ohmphrey worked that way, too, but for Bayliss and Austin, the joining of forces was inspired by strong personal bonds that go beyond the music.

Both being from Chicago, their respective bands ran in the same local circuits. In 2005, Umphrey’s McGee and Yonder Mountain even began touring together. The guitarist and mandolin player found many common interests and struck of a friendship. The bond got stronger when both of them were dealing with the pain of disintegrating relationships at around the same time, and each supported the other to get through those rough patches. Musicians often turn to the composing pen to deal with the hurt, and the two were no different. When they discovered that they were both writing songs about their recent trials on their own, Bayliss and Austin knew it made too much sense to pool their talents together and create something they probably couldn’t do as well within their full-time gigs.

In between tours, they laid down the tracks in just two sessions, assembling Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars on drums, percussion and keyboards; Nick Forster from the newgrass group on second guitar; and Open Road’s Eric Thorin on bass. They didn’t exactly know how the band would sound going into the studio, but were pleased coming out. “We weren’t on a schedule. We were able to let it fully come into realization. We really cared about making these songs happen and sharing them with the audience, whoever that happens to be, whether it’s a 12-year-old kid or a 60-year-old grandma. I’m really happy about how universal it sounds,” effused Austin. Recorded in 2008, mixed in 2009, and on this very day in 2010, their debut release One Man Show finally hits the streets.

The sounds they make really are comforting, which is kind of a strange way to describe a record mainly about heartache. Instead of a bunch of melancholy self-pity tear-jerking, it’s done in more of a “guy” way: reflection, analysis, a little anger and a little humor. Both share vocals equally and their harmonies blend together like brothers. Austin plays his mandolin as a credible rock instrument, resisting the temptation to make this a bluegrass record just because there’s a lot of stringed instruments around. Not that it would have been bad, but the “mandolin rock” they create connects better with the lyrics. Bayliss for his part gets in some nice licks with Forster (they sound almost like the Eagles’ Felder and Walsh on “One Man Show”), but his guitar takes a backseat to the vocals; these guys ain’t jamming, they are testifying to you and rocking you straight up, although they never do either too strong.

The first four cuts are the ones I found to be the choicest. “One Man Show” quickly establishes a mid-tempo rock groove as the narrator deals with the hurt of “being the kid in the in corner the one you try to ignore.” “Always Up” is an apt description for the cheery uptempo demeanor of the song, even as Austin and Bayliss bemoan that “all the good times that we’re missing won’t be around.” The catchy “Susanah” (see video below) even turns around the 19th century Stephen Foster tune as they sing “Oh Susanah you can cry for me.” “Liar”—not the 3 Dog Night song—is as biting as it is brisk and showcases Austin’s quicksilver soloing skills on the mandolin.

And just because this isn’t a bluegrass record per se that there aren’t some dashes of country making its way into some songs, like “Automatic,” “Number Six”; or the Marshall Tucker-styled rocker “Grave.” The boys even tossed in a couple of brief instrumentals, “Instrumental In D” and “Wambala,” which are laid-back pieces performed solely by Austin on mandolin and Bayliss on acoustic guitar.

So can a whole-hearted commitment to a side project mend broken hearts? 30db’s One Man Show seemed to be the right salve for emotional wounds, while soothing the souls of those who listen to it.

Visit 30db’s website here.

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