“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare once asked. The South Austin Jug Band seemingly agrees, possessing one of the most misleading monikers since Barenaked Ladies. Although traditional bluegrass instruments fill its latest release, Strange Invitation, the jugless band moves into new territory, sounding more closely tied to The Grateful Dead than Bill Monroe.
Hints of this new sound were heard on the band's previous album, Dark and Dreary World, but it was a period of creative woodshedding in New York City’s bohemian mecca the Chelsea Hotel (once home to artists like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, and the place where Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen) that gave impetus to Strange Invitation. Its title comes from a line in Beck’s “Jack-Ass,” a song which the band gives an infectious redoing here—the only track not penned by its members.
Wiz kids Brian Beken and Dennis Ludiker handle the heavy lifting as they share duties on violin, mandolin, banjo, acoustic and electric guitars while singer/songwriter James Hyland offers up his engaging, matter-of-fact vocals. The resulting blend is a Bob-Dylan-meets-Union-Station affair—more alternative than newgrass.
“I traveled all alone so long there’s been nobody to betray me,” Hyland sings on the accessible lead track “Come to Me.” Later, on the classic American lament, “Chicago,” he pines, “She asked for a drink and I gave her a song. I hear the train, I hear the train, I hear the train.” The album’s musicianship, while soaring at times, is nonetheless able to smoothly rein in these wandering tunes, proving Strange Invitation a befitting title.