Area music fans have a chance to see two bands Friday at the Cavalier Theater that both have spots in the most recently posted Americana Radio Airplay top 40 chart.
In fact, The Band of Heathens, an Austin, Texas-based band performing with Great American Taxi at the Cavalier, had the No. 1 spot on the chart for a couple weeks (this week it’s at No. 2) with its recently released fifth album, “Duende.” Great American Taxi’s new album, “Dr. Feelgood’s Traveling Medicine Show,” was released last week, debuting at No. 40 on the Americana chart and climbing this week to No. 27.
For Ed Jurdi, one of two main songwriters for The Band of Heathens, the chart placement is nice, as are the glowing reviews of “Duende,” but what’s even more rewarding is he knows from the shows the band has played recently that their fans are really loving it.
“People know the songs already — they’re singing along,” Jurdi said last week in a phone interview.
All the Heathens are pretty pumped about “Duende,” which they recorded with co-producer Jim Vollentine, who has worked with a long roster of artists including Spoon, the Old 97s and Jerry Jeff Walker.
“Everybody’s proud of the stuff we’ve done in the past, but there’s pretty strong agreement that this is the best work we’ve done,” Jurdi said, adding that this comes from a combination of studio experience, a “really good batch of songs” and having a steady band lineup for three years. “The band is the best it’s ever been. I think we’re playing together collectively the best we’ve ever played.”
Standout songs on “Duende,” a tour de force of American roots rock that seamlessly melds the band’s varied rock, boogie, R&B and soul influences, include “Sugar Queen,” “Trouble Came Early,” “Daddy Longlegs,” “Last Minute Man” and “All I’m Asking,” which opens the album with a hook-laden wall-of-sound that evokes the Black Keys.
The band grew out of a weekly Wednesday night residency at a now-gone place in Austin called Momo’s. Jurdi had moved to Austin from Boston, intent on starting a music career, lured to Texas by his songwriting idols — Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Joe Ely and Guy Clark. Jurdi and the other Wednesday night regulars had hour slots and after a while they started playing along with each other.
“It was kind of like a loose hang,” Jurdi said. “The hang was a big part of it. People got into that vibe right away.”
When it started to feel more like a band than a jam, they called it the Good Time Supper Club, but someone started calling them “heathens,” and the name stuck.
Great American Taxi’s name grew out of a tendency to pick up new players — like a taxi — and it has had some lineup changes that delayed the release of its “Dr. Feelgood” record, the band’s first since founding member Vince Herman (of Leftover Salmon) left the band. The new album takes on some darker, more serious topics with a bigger, more electric sound than previous releases, and according to keyboard player Chad Staehly, that’s partly to do with the departure of Herman, a good-time goofball of a guitar player who earned the nickname of “Captain Festival.”
Great American Taxi straddles the yellow-dotted line between jam band and Americana — call it “Jamericana” — and the band is so good at so many roots music styles that it’s hard not the think of The Band when you hear Taxi records, “Dr. Feelgood” included. That comparison is A-OK with Staehly. “The Band is probably one of our biggest influences,” said Staehly, who has a lot of connections to La Crosse and plans to move to the area later this year.
Ace songwriter Todd Snider calls Great American Taxi’s music on the new record “medicinal Americana,” and he’s very well acquainted with the band. Taxi has backed him in concert, recorded Snider’s Jerry Jeff Walker tribute album with him and will be recording again with Snider this year for a career retrospective recording project.
Oh, and Staehly helps manage Snider, Hard Working Americans (a band Snider fronts), Elizabeth Cook (a frequent Snider collaborator who is coming March 19 to The Charmant Hotel), Chicago Farmer, The Band of Heathens and Great American Taxi. Staehly made the move into management when Herman was moving toward leaving Taxi and it was looking like he wouldn’t be playing 150 shows a year anymore.
Staehly, who grew up in Green Bay and moved to Colorado for college, had managed all the bands he’d been in, so it was a natural move for him, one that has him quite busy. “It keeps me grounded on the road instead of partying a little too much,” he said with a laugh.
Both Staehly and Jurdi said they were looking forward to the show at the Cavalier, which is kind of a family reunion for Staehly as his brother, Christian “Chubba” Staehly, plays in the opening band, the Smokin’ Bandits.
For Jurdi, it’s a chance for the bands and fans to get together and forget about political turmoil for a night. “It’s nice to be in a room with a bunch of people where everybody is able to agree that they’re having a good time,” he said.