Angie Mead (guitar, vocals) • Stephen Howard (drums)
“A scorching new [Chicago] band … they play howling hard rock with undercurrents of doom and blues” Chicago Reader
“Sultry dirges” Time Out Chicago
The best music comes out of necessity, where one player can’t take the next step forward without another striking that next note with the second player even if the two musicians had hardly known each other.
That urgency sums up the prelude to REDGRAVE, a swamp blues, heavy rock duo that is already being touted in the Chicago media as the next band on the horizon to watch. One year ago the band never existed and the two players, Angie Mead and Stephen Howard, were mere acquaintances. Today, they are poised to release their first EP (Lovitt Records, 8-24-11) and have earned unexpected admirers from top tastemakers like Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow and Califone’s Tim Rutili.
Necessity made this happen. Mead is a behind-the-scenes veteran of Chicago’s music scene as a musician, talent buyer and publicist. Those roles allowed her fandom of Pinebender, Howard’s flagship band, to flourish. She gave away Pinebender albums to friends to spread the word about the now-famed indie trio. She heard in Howard’s baritone guitar and distinct drumming style the kind of gnarling beauty that gave her songs clarity.
“I would watch him play guitar and drums at a handful of Pinebender shows, the way he approached both were eerily similar to the way I heard my own songs in my head,” she says. “I honed in on him and said, ‘he is the person I want to be in a band with.’ ”
It took nearly 10 years for Mead to send Howard her songs, a result of Facebook messaging which allowed Howard to hear Mead’s latest demos of songs she began writing in the Fall of 2010 - acoustic guitar, bare vocals and drums that needed a larger playing space and heavier weight to match the relentless power of Mead’s lyrics and delivery.
That was January 2011. Daily conversations led to REDGRAVE. Just as Mead was inspired by Howard’s singular guitar tones and drumming style, Howard heard a songwriter’s voice and guitar technique that was different for its unique raw power and beautiful sense of melody.
Necessity drove Howard to Mead as well. Besides Pinebender, he earned a living traveling the world as a bassist in Mississippi Heat, a collective of some of Chicago’s most revered blues musicians. A working musician at the age of 13, Howard had grown up playing local Chicago blues clubs; his teachers included Willie Smith, John Primer and Eddie Clearwater, his classrooms in music included stages across the U.S., Europe and Africa.
Spending over half his young life on the road, he knew how music was more than just entertainment but had the power to persevere hardship in unprecedented ways.
“I saw a lot of sadness in the scene. I didn't want to end up like that, yet anytime I left it, I felt totally empty. Playing the blues opened me up to listening to the real deal of old blues records,” he says. “What the blues taught me was how to truly recreate emotion in music without worrying about making the sound beautiful. It is what it is.”
Howard has good reason to be drawn to the blues: Since age nine he has struggled with his health. An undiagnosed deficiency in his immune system launched his body into a series of near fatal reactions. Years of immunosuppressant exposure resulted in seven hip replacement surgeries between 1999-2007. In between these problems, Howard survived bouts with toxic shock and multiple pneumonia's. Now a delicate balance of immunosuppressant’s and boosters keep him sound and moving forward.
“That may be why I am drawn to real music. Life is short. Getting to the real emotional heart of the music is something I think I have a better respect for. I see through fake shit quicker now,” he says. “It also makes me want to hit things hard.”
After establishing their partnership, REDGRAVE went into Greg Norman’s studio to record “Gone to Wither” and “Mantis,” their debut 7-inch on Lovitt Records, the label responsible for early Pinebender and latter-era Denali, the lush electro-rock band Howard served as bassist and keyboardist.
Mead’s style has always been playing a right-handed guitar upside down a backwards model mimicking Albert King that roughens up the playing. But through playing with Howard, she discovered a way of singing that made her voice crest above his galestorm drumming.
“I was stuck inside my own head writing songs on an acoustic guitar essentially whispering the lyrics to myself in my living room, really being aware I was cheating myself and the songs out of their full potential. Now I'm playing a modified Les Paul through an Orange and a Marshall together at jet engine volume."
Mead’s demos of the two songs captured the attention of Califone’s Rutili, who contributed the second guitar to ‘Gone to Wither’ and REDGRAVE later supported Califone on a bill in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
Necessity prevailed. REDGRAVE is here. Now it’s time to feel the need too.