Liszt is an M.I.T. grad with a degree in molecular biology. Upon graduation, instead of hunkering down in a lab with his Ph. D., Liszt went on tour playing banjo for Bruce Springsteen. College tuition well spent Dr. Liszt.
Truth is Liszt—formerly of Crooked Still—is one hell of a banjo player. He’s even the band’s primary songwriter and producer. Liszt’s masterful—and experimental—four-fingered banjo picking showcases his scientific approach to bluegrass while also tapping into a well spring of creative musicianship. Tradition is a three-finger picking approach.
The trick with the Deadly Gentlemen is that they don’t sing bluegrass music. They’re lyrics aren’t typically about the outdoors or simpler times. Like contemporaries Punch Brothers, the progressive nature of their music comes from writing songs that are a mash-up of abstract indie-rock and top 40 pop lyrics. Lead vocalist and guitarist Stash Wyslouch even looks like the bluegrass, long haired version of Justin Bieber rather than a bearded mountain man. It just so happens that the music behind their emotional and accessible stories is constructed out of mandolin, fiddle, banjo, upright bass and guitar rather than a rock band.
That music isn't at all morbid like the band’s name might imply. Instead it’s proof that as much as they enjoy pushing the genre forward, they are deadly serious about bluegrass heritage. They aren't using drums or electric guitars to advance their sound. Rather, they use time-honored arrangements as canvases to paint their modernist storytelling on. High speed banjo and mandolin plucking drive up the tempo of slow-starting songs like “I Fall Back” and “Bored of the Raging”—an extremely thoughtful track about letting go of rebellious youth.
Their latest album, Roll Me, Tumble Me was picked up by Round Records. That’s quite the endorsement considering that label is responsible for another notable release from 2013, namely the new record from growing banjo legend Steve Martin and folk songstress Edie Brickell.
As good as their music is, perhaps the real gem to come out of the creation of The Deadly Gentlemen is their website The Bluegrass Intelligencer; they describe it best themselves by saying it’s: “an online publication about strange happenings in the world of acoustic music. It’s kind of like The Onion meets the Bluegrass Blog, with an emphasis on gossip and scandal.”
Inside are stories poking fun at many of the band’s peers and mentors including a story leveraging Liszt’s molecular biology education about attempts to clone Chris Thile, front man of the aforementioned Punch Brothers. Liszt even used the site to parody his own four-finger banjo plucking style by writing a story about a 14 year old kid pioneering a five-finger method and chronicling the resulting medical condition that eventually led to Liszt sh**ting a brick.
Bluegrass, science and comedy; sounds like a winning combination.
The Deadly Gentlemen
7 p.m. Friday, August 9
Crow’s Feet Commons
875 N.W. Brooks St.