With its polished and confident take on modern folk-rock, The Great Reprise suggests an outfit that's spent years refining its sound. The second album released by Raleigh's Stillhouse offers regret-tinged meditation filled out with uneasy pedal steel and pointed electric fills as well as up-tempo redemption courtesy of rollicking piano and striding rhythms.
It's a record which could only be accomplished by players with years of experience under their belt, something Stillhouse certainly possesses. Greg Readling (pedal steel/piano) and Dave Wilson (singer/guitarist) are one half of the popular and potent bluegrass band Chatham County Line. Drummer Zeke Hutchins is the live foil for Brooklyn singer Sharon Van Etten, backing her honest tales of life and love in a way that's both tender and tenacious. Bassist Jay Brown is a Raleigh veteran currently lending a steady amble to Tonk's wry revival of old-school country-rock. Three fourths of Stillhouse served as the backing band for Tift Merritt just as the songwriter catapulted from Raleigh roots to the national stage.
Stillhouse's résumé points are indeed impressive, but The Great Reprise's success is still unexpected. The quartet hasn't released a record or played anything other than the odd, impromptu reunion since 2006, a seven-year hiatus that should have rusted — not refined — the band's subtle and savvy style. But the ties which bond these lifelong friends have kept their collective creativity strong and bring them to the Double Door Inn on May 3.
"It's really not about pushing anybody to create something special," Wilson explains. "We just kind of hang out, and the magic sort of — knock on wood — just happens. It's really because we've known each other forever. These dudes, I could talk endlessly about how talented everybody is at what they do. We've just been at it for years, and everybody's been playing music with different people for years. When we get back together, you kind of show the other guys the different things you've learned and the ways you've improved through the years. It's kind of cool to get together and play again."
Stillhouse has been sitting on its new album for about two years. Wilson — the principal singer and songwriter in both of his outfits — was the point man in the process, finding a hole in all of their schedules and convening everyone in an old general store in the Virginia hills. A relic from an era of the forestry boom, the store's warm space and hardwood floors provide an acoustically rich hangout, something Wilson remembered from CCL's experience recording there. He rounded up his bandmates, brought along some recording equipment and a buddy to cook meals, and ensured that they had a fully stocked bar. They settled in for a week and cut about 18 songs, 10 of which ended up on Reprise.
"I wrote the songs and bought the Maker's Mark, all the bits and pieces to have a good time," Wilson says laughingly. Similar calendar-crunching was needed to gather the group for this week's three-date N.C. tour, which the band planned to coincide with the record's release. "I just had to find a spot on the calendar when everyone could get together and play some shows, so thank God I did. I'm psyched to get this record out. It's been done for a while, so I've just been psyched to get it in the hands of some listeners."
In addition to highlighting the charms of a surprisingly resilient outfit, Stillhouse's new record and new spate of shows offer fresh perspective on Chatham County Line, one of the most confident and confounding bluegrass bands around. The songs Wilson contributes to CCL rush forth with fluid hooks and fleet verses, hitching the powerful momentum of old-fashioned string music to catchy structures imported from pop and rock. Many of these songs were created during jam sessions with Stillhouse, distilled from full-on rock versions that the reunited ensemble plans to pepper into its upcoming shows.
But the bleed-over is equally apparent on Reprise. Apart from trading banjo and mandolin for piano and drums, "Leave This World" swells in the way of CCL's most unrestrained offerings, right down to Wilson's jubilant harmonica blasts.
"It's more just being able to let my hair down a little bit," Wilson says. "The thing that's great about Chatham County Line is that it has all those influences and all those building blocks, but it kind of stymies them in a way that makes it even greater than a normal string band, at least for myself hearing it and experiencing it. This is kind of, 'Damn the torpedoes, let's just be as loud as we want,' and if people talk during the show, then they're going to get an earful of loud electric guitar."
$8-$12. May 3, 9 p.m. Double Door Inn. 0x000Awww.doubledoorinn.com.