“It looks like we’re driving into the lion’s den,” says Steve Foltz, mandolin player for up-and-coming Denver-based string band Trout Steak Revival. When reached by phone, Foltz and the rest of the acoustic quintet are cruising toward a gig in Pennsylvania, surrounded by thick layers of accumulated snow from Winter Storm Jonas, which rocked the East Coast back in January. Some hairy road conditions, though, aren’t going to stop an eager band when it’s poised to go big time.
Trout Steak Revival just spent a month this winter on its first national theater tour, playing short opening sets for jamgrass predecessors Yonder Mountain String Band in major cities including Atlanta and Nashville. It was a welcomed opportunity in the band’s current “spread-the-word” phase, as Foltz called it, playing its best material on stage for a fast 45 minutes, then shaking hands with new fans at the merch table.
That frenzy is how a young band on the grassroots touring circuit grows, but back home, Trout Steak Revival has already done all the right things to potentially become Colorado’s next big bluegrass export.
Two years ago the band won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest (where previous winners have included Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek), and that win followed a 2012 third-place finish at the band contest at RockyGrass. With momentum following the competition success and a growing fan base throughout Colorado, the group—which also features Travis McNamara on banjo, Bevin Foley on fiddle, Will Koster on dobro and guitar and Casey Houlihan on bass—decided to make the band a full-time pursuit at the beginning of last year.
That push started with the spring release of a new studio album, “Brighter Every Day,” an effort that features 11 original tunes that emphasize soaring harmonies and tight, collective playing over extended individual solos.
“None of us grew up playing these instruments,” Foltz admits. “Our strength has never been ripping through a traditional bluegrass tune. Where we’ve always put our heads is songwriting and singing.”
The band’s roots go back to Michigan, where Houlihan, Koster and McNamara first started playing music together as summer camp counselors, at the time mainly trading acoustic guitar-and-harmonica versions of rock tunes. All three, along with Houlihan’s college buddy Foltz, eventually ended up in Colorado, where they met Foley, a classically trained violinist since childhood.
Enchanted by Colorado’s storied and still-thriving string band scene, which has yielded generations of popular outfits ranging from Hot Rize to Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain, the members of Trout Steak Revival eventually got acquainted with bluegrass instruments, with Foley adjusting her focus towards the direction of old-time fiddle.
To make “Brighter Every Day” the band enlisted the help of the Infamous Stringdusters’ Chris Pandolfi, who produced the album and delivered a banjo boost on the pastoral newgrass instrumental “Sierra Nevada.”
“He was a coach,” Foltz said of Pandolfi. “Six months before we went into the studio he was helping us dissect our songs and make changes. Some bands enter the studio and record on the fly, but we were prepared and that helped take a lot of songs to another level.”
Honed arrangements help surface the introspective lyrics on standouts like the solemn country-minded ballad “Days of Gray” and the expansive, sunny folk-rock of the title track. “Pie” is hard-driving foot-stomper that proves the band is indeed developing some chops in traditional bluegrass, while “Colorado River” has a wide-open, dance-friendly vibe with the high-country edge that’s expected to come from a string band in the Rockies.
The band is planning to play more shows in 2016 than it played in any previous year, and with the tour supporting Yonder now done, Trout Steak is prepping for two big home-state shows this month: March 11 at the Fox Theater in Boulder with Caribou Mountain Collective, and March 12 at the Bluebird Theater in Denver with Covenhoven. With the crowds getting consistently bigger, the band has been working hard to make its live shows more adventurous.
“We’ve been experimenting with open improvisational sections that are built into a song,” Foltz said. “With a lot of new tunes, there’s no particular ending point until we feel the tension is there to release into the chorus. A lot of that comes from watching bands like Greensky Bluegrass and the Stringdusters. That makes the live show a treat for fans, because they’re hearing something new each time out. We’re building new moments.”