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The Old Tire Swingers @ The Tree Tops Bar/The New Inn - Wednesday 18th January 2012

You would be hard-pressed to find a genuine slice of Californian bluegrass and old time music on any given Wednesday in Gloucester.  On this particular Wednesday, however, The Tree Tops Bar and BWM Promotions was very proud to host that very ticket as we were joined by The Old Tire Swingers during their fifth leg of their 13-date UK tour. 

The four-piece band from Fresno, California is made up of Paul Chesterton (banjo, vocals), Nick Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Frick Dau (upright bass) and Nathanael Felon (mandolin, vocals).  Placed between two extensive US tours, the band have travelled the five thousand miles from central California to promote their self-titled debut album. 

At around 6 feet 4 inches and sporting a bushy Amish-style beard, Paul Chesterton cuts an imposing figure as the band’s lead singer and physical peak.  Adjusting the ribbon microphone to meet his height, his friendly and engaging manner quickly disperses any preconceptions of anything on the contrary.  The band begin with an old time song called Cindy in which Chesterton’s fast-paced banjo strum is matched like for like by Nick Kennedy’s on guitar.  This traditional song is a country and bluegrass favourite and served as a discerning introduction to the structure, form and friendliness of this brand of music.     

It becomes clear very quickly that this group of twenty-somethings are very proud of their heritage.  Indeed, it’s what makes The Old Tire Swingers so enjoyable.  Their origins inform their music as Chesterton shows no reluctance in talking about the area in which he and the band grew up.  It is refreshing to hear him talk about his roots so warmly; English bands of similar age often skip over their heritage, or rather exclude it in favour of a preferred cultural anonymity. 

What’s more, it’s clear that the band is more in touch with nature; very early on in the set, the band play a song called Bernadine, a piece they wrote about being sat in the shade of a Valley Oak tree that grows in their native California.  “We like to sing songs about animals and we like to sing songs about hunting,” Chesterton proclaims.  Later in the set, the band get into a discussion about rabbits, grizzly bears, urban foxes (they’d never seen an urban fox before they came to England) and Armadillos that – the singer admits – looks like a dinosaur rat.

The Tire Swingers’ influence cannot simply be confined to the genre of Bluegrass and Old Time music.  As an introduction to the next song, Chesterton tells us that he first heard “Over in the Glory Land” on an old Stanley Brothers record.  It’s a slight departure from their high tempo bluegrass songs heard previously.  At a slower, more contemplative tempo, the gospel harmonies are wonderfully warm as the banjo, guitar, mandolin and upright bass adapt to another one of their numerous influences.    

Via “Hey Little Baby”, the first Old Time love song Chesterton ever wrote, Nathanael Felon takes centre stage to sing “Big Betty”, a song written in homage to his beat up 1970s pickup truck.  Its pace is dizzying and matches its subject matter: a car chase – imagined or otherwise – from the local police: “Those cops aren’t fast enough, Big Betty!/How fast can you go, Big Betty?/Pedal to the floor, Big Betty!”  There is something quite hypnotic about the song that Chesterton also backs up to a crescendo with his vocals as the story’s second of three accomplices. 

Continuing the theme of animals and hunting, the last song of the night is “The Big-Eyed Rabbit.”  “If you like rabbit songs,” Chesterton says, straight-faced, “this is the song for you,” as the band embark on another high-paced affair in which the trio lament the loss of a rabbit they failed to catch.  It stood as a fabulous end to a great show. 

In the same way that The Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou? brought the bluegrass sound of the Soggy Bottom Boys to the masses (a film the Kennedy quotes on two occasions during the set, one of which confounds Chesterton), The Tire Swingers bring a 21st century relevance to their brand of music.  The high-paced stories never fail to compel and engage, while the genuine slice of Fresno, California went down an absolute treat.    


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