Like that old pair of comfortable shoes that you polish and shine for Sunday services, The Steel Wheels make familiar music with exceptional skill, spit-shining old-time and Americana for its turn in the spotlights. Steeped in the vocal harmony singing traditions of the Mennonite upbringings several band members can claim and infused with powerful, passionate performances in the league of John Fogerty and The Band, there really is no need for this band to lay low, as the title of its latest suggests.
Opening track Breaking Like the Sun rocks like an acoustic Donna The Buffalo, with a rhythmic swagger and a lyric referencing the instruments, Hear the fiddle double with the squeezebox now, get into the melody but don't sit down, that's practically an instruction manual for the proper way to react to these songs.
Instrumental Fridley's Gap proves the band has serious chops, and elsewhere the tunes are memorable at a minimum even if the main focus here is on the lyrics and the voices delivering them. There are traces of shape note singing, bluegrass and folk song structures, but the energy, enthusiasm and utter conviction of the performances make each song more than just some echo of past formats. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the one oddball track, Spider's Wings, which adds a healthy dollop of funk rhythms while remaining true to the band's acoustic nature.
Main Wheel Trent Wagler's voice comes across sometimes as an insistent carnival barker, exhorting his band mates to more spectacular vocal interplay on Rain in the Valley accompanied by nothing more than a stomp box and a 'washer stick' for a beat, and at other times, he's a resigned yet content observer of the human condition with a gift for a tender country tune (the title song and Halfway to Heaven). The group always acts as one, however, with Wagler just one gear in the arsenal that drives this American music machine.