They started out as a joke, and now they’re a multi-state touring band. White Trash Blues Revival’s music embodies an aesthetic of both lo-fi indie rock and traditional blues. Neither as polished nor as accomplished as the popular blues-based indie rock band the Black Keys, the locals in White Trash Blues Revival keep their music stripped-down and unpretentious and deliver it with a healthy dose of humor to keep things real.Originally formed as a one-off joke band to compete in a Battle of the Worst Band contest (a contest they did not win), they made such an impact that they quickly found an audience in tune with their music. Few people would guess that a band whose instruments are homemade from household items and whose bass player is an admitted non-musician would ever be able to book a live show, let alone find an enthusiastic audience wherever they go, but WTBR are proving them wrong.
Call it the power of traditional blues from the Mississippi Delta. Blues is perhaps the quintessential American form of music. It’s the foundation for rock n’ roll, meaning that it’s the source of the most popular music on the planet. Its roots, however, are much humbler. The source of the blues comes from slave traditions, oppressed people with few resources who made the music as a salve for their woes.
Since slaves had no financial resources or access to manufactured musical instruments, they used common household items to play as instruments or to construct new instruments of their invention. That tradition carries on in WTBR; the featured string instrument is a skiddley-bo, an original instrument based on the traditional slave instrument the diddley-bo. Diddley-bos were early blues string instruments made out of cheap materials; the skiddley-bo is a similar instrument made out of an old skateboard, a bottle of Red Stripe beer and two strings.
The creator and player of the skiddley-bo is one Joe Bent. Brenn Beck, the real live drummer from Left Lane Cruiser, is WTBR’s main percussionist; however, rather than his drum set, he plays a kit consisting of a cardboard box, a paint tin, trash can and an electrified five-gallon bucket. Dirty Pete Dio, the band’s other percussionist, bangs away on a 13-year-old keg still half full of stale beer. Rounding out the quartet is Jeff “Ando” Anderson on a washtub bass guitar. Hastily assembled for the sole purpose of the Battle of the Worst Bands contest, the band received an unexpectedly enthusiastic response and decided to keep going, christening themselves White Trash Blues Revival to have a more marketable name.
Improvisation weighs heavily in the band’s music. While their musical play tends to fall into certain patterns and they have general ideas of what they’re going to do when they go to play (especially lyrically), they don’t strictly adhere to written songs, emphasizing spontaneity and freedom of expression as they play.
“It’s 100 percent improvisation. We don’t practice ... The more we play, the more these songs kind of take on a little bit of a form. But honestly, each show is different,” Ando says. “We didn’t even practice for battle of the worst band. We just showed up and started making some noise. And people have been digging it, so we’ve just kept the formula going.”
Of course, blues music has its own mythos that goes along with it. One of the common myths is the idea of people selling their souls to the devil for success as blues musicians. When asked if he had sold his soul, Ando laughs.
“No, no, no,” he says. “If I’d have done that I probably wouldn’t be playing a washtub bass right now.”
He does admit, however, that he has visited Mississippi, considered the home of the blues. Despite not being a musician (he was there while working as a tour manager for another band), he says, “It had a profound effect on me ... listening to a 90-year-old bluesman play there. Just down the street from where I was staying, he said they put him in jail ... and he’s telling me stories of his time from being on a chain gang, that kind of stuff.”
Despite their early and apparently ongoing success, their origin remains somewhat of a stigma for them. The association with forming for a battle for being the worst band either makes it difficult for some people to accept them as a legitimate entity or an easy target for potshots. Fortunately those comments seem to come from a minority, and haven’t prevented people from showing up to their shows, although Ando admits, “We get a lot more love out of town. In Fort Wayne we get a lot of ‘Aren’t you guys that battle of the worst bands band? I ain’t going to see that crap!”
Despite the negativity and the fact that the blues is a musical tradition that was born out of hard times, the experience of watching WTBR is nothing but a good time.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious or anything but chicks dig it,” says Ando. “Chicks are shaking their butts off, and it’s great. It’s a simple boom boom boom bass line, and we’re singing, and they’re out there shaking their booties to it. That’s awesome.”