In our over-stimulated, access-to-everything digital universe, seeing a band perform live is an increasingly precious commodity. When Uncle Daddy came through town I knew I was going to get a good show, but what I didn’t see coming was the intimate energy so finely-tuned by such well-versed musicians.
Hard to nail down, but hope with a side of southern homefries is one way to describe Los Angeles-based Uncle Daddy and their latest album Good Mourning. If you go looking for a clear definition of the term “Uncle Daddy” you will find a spectrum of answers ranging from the strangely disturbing to the unorthodox hopeful. These guys got their name from cellist and member Jacob Szekeley, who, upon hearing a sound that has become their signature, said, “That’s so Uncle Daddy!”
Put a mandolin, violin, cello, acoustic guitar, bass and drums together and there tends to be a certain expectation, something that should sound like a Nashville studio session. Uncle Daddy, though, came together in L.A., so while there are some elements of Country/Southern Rock, it sounds more like an intentional rough and rugged roll through a mud-sloshed Mississippi creek bed, the kind where you come out covered in dirt, sweat and a smile. “We’re doing things with our instruments that people keep saying to us, ‘you can’t do that,’” explains Andrew Jed, who sometimes uses a brass slide on his Mandolin. Those things “you can’t do” are bending classical and acoustic strings with blues notes backed by a busting John Bonham-like percussion from drummer Christopher Allis layered in the hip-hop lyrics of L.A. Riots’ Thurz or SensMusiq.
Good Mourning is filled with challenges to the status quo, uninhibited confessions of doubt, and throughout there is a calling out invitation to something more, something akin to a homecoming. Opening their set with the album’s first track, TJ Stafford proclaims, “I wanna scream til my lungs explode/Fight the Devil til it kills my soul/Burn in hell til there’s nothing left/ And I will rise again,” while Andrew Jed’s mandolin and Robbie Anderson’s violin contrast the despair and hope with Allis’ drums and Noah Needlman’s bass rhythms.
In a live show they cover the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” replacing the opening scratch synth and power-chord guitar with Jed’s banjo while maintaining all the thrust and energy of the original. They then transition to a gentle, unplugged acoustic in-the-round sendoff with their own “Come To The Well”—a benediction of sorts as the lyrics suggest, “Lift your eyes up from the ground/Find out where the lost are found/When the desert dries your bones/Come to the well and I will take you home.”
When you bring together six guys who have moved beyond the years of youth-filled-angst songwriting into the professionals that started Uncle Daddy at the beginning of their 30s you get a cask-aged maturity and honed energy with a tight performance that thrives both in the studio and on the stage. Lead vocalist and guitarist Stafford says, “There’s a release of ego” within the group. They aren’t fighting for the spotlight but laying it aside for each other. This generosity of play results in a humility and visceral quality that creates space for the listener to join the revelry.
There are plenty of bands that sound more like untrained kids in a jam session. Uncle Daddy has a level of play and performance reflective of its members’ formal educations and extensive experience. Each member brings to the round a curriculum vitae that lists contributions to film and TV such as Toy Story 3, Battlestar Gallactica and The Walking Dead. Anderson and Szekely also run a music school called String Project LA that teaches improvisational string performance. String Project gives kids permission and the instruction necessary to play the likes of Hendrix and the blues on a violin while learning how to perform professionally. So not only are the members of Uncle Daddy top-shelf musicians who know the intricacies of their craft, they keep looking for ways to invite anyone and everyone else to participate.
Good Mourning is an album that begs the “repeat” setting in your player. It is a rollercoaster ride of mixed-genre that will have you wanting to punch your ticket for another ride. Add them to your list of most sought-after live shows. Whether you catch them on tour or in your headphones, you will enjoy the rumpus that is Uncle Daddy. That said, just plan on both.