by Kate Conner-Ruben
There's a picture of a wolf on the back panel of Steppin' in It's second CD, Last Winter in the Copper Country, a wolf walking silently through a winter landscape. And it's an apt image. Since stepping into Michigan's roots-music scene a couple of years ago, this Lansing-based band has practiced a similar, ultranatural stealth, pouncing on unsuspecting music lovers and rendering them happily senseless (though with throats intact). This acoustic quartet throws an impressive number of instruments into the mix guitar, bass, resophonic guitar, steel guitar, mando, banjo, Dobro, fiddle, Cajun accordion, trumpet, pennywhistles, and three kinds of harmonicas and actually emerges with a signature sound rather than a mess.
The band's new release, titled simply Copper Country, is a winsome album: warm, literate, beautiful, and fun. The first cut, the oft-recorded folk standard "Butcher's Girl (Boy)," sets a dark and driving tone, propelled by chugging, percussive guitar, as this ancient song finds modern meaning. (The liner notes say that Josh Davis, who sings on this one, saw the great Joel Mabus play this song at the Hiawatha Festival in Marquette when he was just a little tyke, and it made rather an impression.) Davis's husky-whisper voice is both seductive and confessional in this and every other song he sings here.
There are interesting story-song originals, and instrumentals that need not a word. Sweetest of all is "Walt's Waltz," a paean to the Yellow Dog River, up way up in Marquette County. Funniest is Davis's "Four Little Men," a country shuffle all gussied up with washboard and attitude no, I take it back, funniest is "(Boom) Clank." You'll see why. I simply cannot and will not describe it.
I caught Steppin' in It at the Ark in a shared show with Pub Domain (now "taking some time off," they say), and the place was packed. We're talking groupies here, serious ones, who respond (one might assume) to a rather palpable sexiness at play here I mean these shiny-tressed young gents are seriously adorable. People crowd the dance floor at Steppin' in It shows. Anyone who's worried about the future of traditional/roots music and its place in a society that watches and cares about shows like American Idol can rest assured: things are in very good hands.
Steppin' in It plays at the Ark's season-opening Student Welcome Concert on Thursday, September 4.
[Originally published in September, 2003.]
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