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About the worst thing that can occur when a band leader decides to undertake a solo tour is unthinkingly defaulting into the dreaded singer-songwriter mode. Let's see: acoustic guitar, stool, and microphone.
In a word: boring.
Sure, there are a few examples of doing it right. Think Eddie Vedder with his ukulele, stripping down his songs to their barest core, or Neil Young introducing pump organ and feedback-driven electric guitar into the mix. Deadstring Brothers' frontman Kurt Marschke also takes a different approach when going solo. Marschke actually works the drums while simultaneously playing guitar while playing harmonica and/or singing.
"I didn't really want to do the singer-songwriter thing where you play acoustic guitar and sing, you know? I've seen people play a record without accompaniment, and I'm not a big fan of that," Marschke says by phone during a recent drive from Nashville to St. Louis. "But I wanted to be able to have a bit of volume and be able to keep a beat so there was more than just a song going. I don't consider myself a singer-songwriter. I sing and write songs, but I wanted to see if I could manage the whole thing and see how much sound I could create with a one-person outfit."
Using a snare drum with hi-hat, acoustic or slide guitar, and harmonica, Marschke manages to keep his solo affairs not only lively, but somewhat different from the Deadstring Brothers' country-rock sound of the '70s. Marschke takes a more bluesy approach, following up on influences like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James.
"They have a lot going on with just the guitar. I'm a big fan of that," he says, adding, "I like acoustic blues, not electric; acoustic country, not electric. It influences what I do."
That explains Marschke's choices to cover songs by Muddy Waters and Willie Nelson. But it doesn't exactly explain the Talking Heads song he performs.
"I do some obscure stuff," he says. "I pick songs that I thought I could actually perform well and stuff that I thought fit really well into this combination of drums, guitar, and harp, and everything all at once. By nature, most of these songs I would never do with a band. I would never take a group into that setting. I handpicked these [songs] to do the stripped-down one-man band thing."
When performing with his band, the comparisons to the Rolling Stones, The Band, and Gram Parsons are endless. Though the comparisons are somewhat tiring, Marschke admits it was inevitable given his passion for Keith Richards' style of guitar playing and the artists he listened to in his youth.
"I became a big fan of vintage rock 'n' roll records as a kid growing up," he says. "So when I started the band, it wasn't something that was really going on at the time. Those were the kind of records I wanted to hear, so those were the kind of records I wanted to make.
"But I knew there was no getting around [the comparisons] happening," he says. "It wasn't a surprise. I knew I had it coming. You listen to too much Exile on Main Street and you're going to get pinned for it."
Marschke adds that he likes breaking down these songs in his solo concerts, finding the elemental core and rebuilding from there. The shows have received plenty of positive feedback.
"I've been touring with various lineups [of Deadstring Brothers] since 2006, and I wanted to see if I could go out and tour solo," he says. "Fans tell me they enjoy different versions of the songs . . . But, it's more fun when you can do both."