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The New Blues: How Box Car Stringband went from jug band to rock powerhouse 

Bend's Box Car Stringband blends blues and old-time music influences with their rock music.

click to enlarge sound_boxcar-stringband.jpg

Joseph Balsamo is a multitasker. But not in the manner you'd expect from a musician like him. It's not that he can sing and play the guitar - which he can - but if you drop him a line on a Friday afternoon and he's painting the inside of a house to prepare for new renters, he'll gladly pick up the phone. But that doesn't mean he'll stop painting.

Over the next half-hour, as he applies a layer of interior paint to the walls of his home, Balsamo talks by way of a hands-free device about his music career and Box Car Stringband, the dirty blues and rockabilly duo-turned-trio that is quickly making strides as one of the area's most engaging live rock shows. While Balsamo, a longtime blues fan, has played for a while as a solo act in local bars and cafes, its with Box Car that his songs really take off.

But the initial concept of Box Car is hardly the sort of hard-driving blues-rock you'll hear on the night of Thursday, May 12, at McMenamins. When Balsamo and stand-up bassist Casey Cathcart separately answered an online ad seeking members for a new group, the posting actually asked for people interested in starting a jug band.

"It became apparent really quick that we weren't going to have a jug band," says the 33-year-old Balsamo, who has spent nearly a decade working with teenagers and young adults in wilderness therapy programs. Now, with his current job coming to a close, Balsamo is devoting more time to his music and is preparing for Box Car's first album, which will be released later this summer.

While the jug band never materialized, what did come to fruition is a firestorm of rough-and-tumble blues-inspired indie rock that seemed nearly impossible for merely Balsamo's electric guitar and fuzzy vocals and Cathcart's thumping bass to be churning out. Now, the band has added Sean Garvin, who also plays in Bend pop-punk band Tuck and Roll, to play the drum kit, further escalating the power of a sound that, had it not been for the emergence of a couple hit-making bands in the last few years, might still be considered obscure.

"Thank God for Jack White and The Black Keys who married those styles together," says Balsamo, referring to the relatively recent appearance of blues-tinged rock music that the two aforementioned bands have brought into the mainstream, inspiring acts like Box Car.

But the blues is nothing new to Balsamo, who grew up outside of Chicago, a region well known for its exceptional blues scene. From a young age, he was inspired by blues sounds.

"I grew up listening to the '50s radio station because my dad was a rock and roller. The progression for me was listening to the oldies channel and then hearing the blues in all that and realizing I really liked it," says Balsamo.

When he was 17, Balsamo bought a piece of crap guitar on layaway. He took lessons for a while, but soon lost interest, opting rather to learn the instrument on his own and spent the next several years not seriously diving into the instrument, but playing with friends around campfires. During his college days at Southern Illinois University, Balsamo's blues education continued.

"I started out with Muddy Waters and then started following the path down to the Delta and all of those sounds," says Balsamo.

Box Car Stringband isn't playing a Muddy Waters brand of blues. Their sound, especially now with the addition of Garvin on the drums, is very much rock and roll. Those who've come to love Portland's bizarro blues-rock duo Hillstomp, a band that's caught on quite well in Bend over the years, can identify with what Box Car is doing... even if they might not be able to come up with a description as smooth as what Balsamo is able to conjure.

"We take that blues and old-time music influence, but then we add in some Elvis Presley and then some Reverend Horton Heat and a few other things," says Balsamo.

It's tough to come up with a description of one's own music, but Balsamo is able to do it. The only question is - how did that paint job turn out?

Box Car Stringband

7pm Thursday, May 12. McMenamins Old St. Francis School, 700 NW Bond St. Free. All ages.


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