A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Jazz-grass band MilkDrive mixes up eclectic acoustic music
Column: The Austin, Texas-based quartet is playing Friday at Oklahoma City’s Blue Door and Saturday at Tulsa’s The Vanguard.
While its members hail from different parts of the country and divergent sonic backgrounds, a mutual love of acoustic music paved the way for MilkDrive.
The fledgling jazz-grass string quartet fuses not only jazz and progressive bluegrass but also alt-folk, roots rock and jam band influences. And the Austin, Texas-based band is starting to develop quite a reputation for its dynamic musical style that’s at once sophisticated and free-wheeling.
“We all like everything from rock to just crazy out-there avant-garde type music. We try to throw in really any influences that we have in there,” said guitarist/harmony vocalist Noah Jeffries, who recently spent much of a month off in Oklahoma visiting his wife’s family in Tulsa and pals in Tahlequah.
“There’s a difference even with our sound on our albums and what we do live. I mean, “We do a lot more jam-type stuff live; you know, more instrumental tunes and stuff that really kind of gets more into the jazz part of the jazz-grass.”
MilkDrive will return to Oklahoma City’s Blue Door for a performance Friday night and then head to Tulsa to play Saturday night at The Vanguard.
Oklahomans who think they detect a hint of red dirt in MilkDrive’s eclectic sound aren’t wrong: Jeffries played fiddle for seven years with Harrah native Jason Boland & the Stragglers. His father-in-law, Dana Hazzard, was the original fiddler for Boland’s band.
“We’re still just kind of trying to hone the sound of what we’re doing vocally,” Jeffries said of MilkDrive in a phone interview last week. “That’s still more of a new part of this band, as we started three or four years ago as just an instrumental side project. Things are slowly evolving.”
While MilkDrive is only a few years old, its members have known each other for years. Jeffries, harmony vocalist/mandolin player Dennis Ludiker and lead singer/fiddler Brian Beken first met as youngsters competing in the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest in Jeffries’ native Idaho. Their new band’s name is even derived from that shared childhood experience.
“There was a road called MilkDrive and an old abandoned milk factory. They’ve since like torn the whole thing down,” Jeffries said. “We’d go out there and light fireworks and, you know, just do things we weren’t supposed to do as kids. And so that was a memorable thing for us.”
Naturally, the multi-instrumentalists bring the sounds they were raised on and the influence of the bands they’ve played with to MilkDrive. Jeffries grew up in a family bluegrass band; Ludiker, who has toured with Asleep at the Wheel, hails from Spokane, Wash., and a clan of champion fiddlers; and Lone Star State native Beken, who has played with Texas country singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, learned fiddle through the Suzuki method and listened to top 40 country as a youth.
“Once we first heard David Grisman and a lot of the stuff that he was doing, that really opened up a big thing for all of us and got us into listening to just other styles of music,” Jeffries said. “He takes that bluegrass instrumentation and started doing something different with it that he coined ‘Dawg Music.’ It’s a mixture of several different types.”
Bassist Matt Mefford started out interested in rockabilly, turned to jazz and connected with Ludiker and Beken when all three played in the South Austin Jug Band.
“I was always a roommate of them,” Jeffries said. “We were all doing other gigs — you know, paying the bills and stuff — then we’d come home on a Sunday and a Monday, we’d just pick up a gig somewhere here in Austin.”
As their fleet-fingered picking and canny compositions garnered them more gigs, and folks started asking if they could sing.
“We were like, ‘Well, we do, but we’ve never done it together,’” Jeffries said. But they started adding lyrics and vocals to their repertoire.
“The instrumental part has always been our passion. But this is something that’s so new to us that we don’t really know what we want it to be. It’s getting there to being more what we want it to be, but it’s still kind of evolving.”
After dropping a live album, “MilkDrive Live ‘09,” the quartet gathered in a Nashville studio to record 2011’s “Road from Home.”
“When that first album came out … we all quit our other bands and started focusing full-time on doing MilkDrive,” Jeffries said.
“We were much more prepared as we were a full-time band doing our second album.” he added. “We had 10 songs and we had played every single one of those 10 songs more than twice live in front of a crowd, which helps a ton.”
The band penned about half the tracks on its 2012 album “Waves,” which also includes originals from fellow Austinites Robison and Drew Smith as well as a rootsy rendition of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” Percussionist Roy “Futureman” Wooten of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones played Kenyan goat-skin hand drum and coffee nut bean shaker on the Fab Four cover, while Noam Pikelny of the Punch Brothers lent his banjo to the intricate instrumental “Benny’s Bus.”
“Here we are three or four years later with quite a large repertoire of original music and music of friends of ours,” Jeffries said. “It’s exciting.”
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Blue Door, 2805 N McKinley.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: The Vanguard, 222 N Main St.