When The Demolition String Band steps onto the stage at the May 6 Hoboken Arts and Music Festival, they will be returning to a place that gave them birth back in New Jersey. Though the band has traveled around the nation, playing venues with some of the top acts of country, rock and bluegrass, it is Hoboken that gave them their start, and they are coming home with a new CD and a national reputation few bands from Hoboken have previously attained.
To say the Demolition String Band has its roots in Hoboken and Hudson County would be a gross understatement.
Although the band has become one of the loudest voices for the establishment of an Americana category for musical Emmys and has made a reputation nation wide for its mix of bluegrass, honky-tonk and rock, DSB evolved out of Hoboken and the massive changes Hudson County was undergoing.
“Some people we have played for in mountain country were amazed at how people from the north could get down with bluegrass the way we could.” – Elena Skye
Elena Skye, who sings, plays mandolin, and writes many of the band’s songs, said they were looking for a name, and jokingly said they ought to be the Demolition String Band because that’s all they see.
The name stuck.
Bluegrass in Hudson County?
Seated in the downtown Starbucks, Skye and Reiner, two of the founding members, talk about their past and their future, and especially the gig that will allow them to play once more before their hometown crowd after nearly a decade away.
Although Skye was known for being part of Hoboken’s lineup of hardcore punk bands during the 1980s, she’s had roots in bluegrass music since her teens in high school. Later she studied mandolin with Kenneth “Jethro” Burns, a legend on the Chicago club circuit.
In college, she discovered punk music and started a band with Caren Belle called Belle-Skye, one of the more popular Hoboken bands, but one that could not make the right connections to evolve beyond a regional band.
She met Reiner in 1993. He had similar roots and they often played bluegrass after hours at Blackwater Books, a Hoboken book store she owned at the time.
Eventually, they took their act to the public, working once a week at the Elysian Café.
Then everything took off.
A big splash
Officially founded in 1996, The Demolition String Band quickly emerged as one of the leading alternative country and bluegrass bands in the tri-state area, receiving positive press in The New York Times, Billboard, The Village Voice, Country Standard Time and local magazines and papers across the country.
The band was soon fronting for serious bluegrass performers throughout the area and nation, including Ricky Skaggs, Blue Highway, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, impressing audiences with their skill and knowledge of the genre.
“Some people we have played for in mountain country were amazed at how people from the north could get down with bluegrass the way we could,” Skye said.
But they also had a reputation for doing bluegrass versions of popular music such as songs by the Ramones, or, even more powerful, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which won the band national air play.
Even as a band formed in the New York area, Demolition String Band had won acceptance in the bluegrass and Americana world.
“Though not a string band in the true sense, the Demolition String Band is a totally righteous country-rock outfit that’s a well-measured balance between melody and muscle,” said a reviewer from Orlando Weekly. “Together, Elena Skye’s big voice and Boo Reiner’s studly guitar-playing pack enough octane to juice an 18-wheeler. Pretty damned McCoy for a buncha Yanks.”
Another reviewer said, “These city slickers sing and play like a congenial aunt and uncle in a West Virginia mining town. They’re also terrific guitarists, and the album is framed by instrumentals: Different versions of Skye’s weeping ‘Jethro’s Lullabye’ open and close the set, and Reiners’ ‘Boojo Breakdown’ burns like a shot of bourbon.”
Perhaps the most visible sign of respect came when they were contacted by the estate of the late Woodie Guthrie to see if the band would be interested in putting music to one of that legendary songwriter’s as-yet-unpublished lyrics called “Go Coney Island, Roll In The Sand,” which is to be part of a book project celebrating Coney Island. Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter, the director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, and president of Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., asked to see them, and they were thrilled.
This coincides with the release of a new CD, “Gracious Days,” which was produced by Steve Rosenthal, one of the premier contemporary record producers.
Reiner said that while Rosenthal had one vision for the record and the band had another, “we met in the middle.”
The record is a kind of sampler of the band’s possibilities – a little rock, a little bluegrass, and even a duet that Reiner said shows the band’s roots.
Skye said the last decade has been an education deeper into a kind of music she already loved, and the band has grown tighter, and it is “a leaner and meaner” band that will take the stage in Hoboken.