The Ben Miller Band makes a striking first impression.
A look at the band’s arsenal of musical instruments makes the viewer think they may have stopped by a few yard sales on the way to the gig, with a side trip to the local Ace Hardware.
Ben Miller plays guitars and banjo with the finish worn off. Doug DiCharry rattles away on a small, hand-me-down drum set, adding some washboard as well as tooting a bit of “St. James Infirmary” on trombone. Scott Leeper provides the trio’s heartbeat on a washtub bass – a Weed Whacker cord strung down into a plastic tub. When the music moves him, he’ll add a percussive throb on an old fire bell.
Their vocals match the front porch quality of their instruments. They deliver a mix of folk, old-time gospel, primal jazz and country — music that predates the modern penchant for labeling everything. This is the dark undercurrent of Americana.
The Ben Miller Band perked up listeners’ ears when it opened the Black Swamp Arts Festival in 2013. The trio returns this year for a couple sets including the festival-ending Main Stage billing.
Miller, in a recent telephone interview, said the instruments reflect the band’s environment. “Our environment is rural and poor. The things we played are the things we can afford — things that were broken and other people threw away.”
Miller said it’s exciting to find odd tools for sound production. He likened it to a chef going to a farmers market to discover new ingredients.
The rawness comes from “being who we are,” he said. “We are not a band that started out with a concept then executed it. It’s sort of like biological evolution. We try everything that strikes to our imagination. What works sticks. What doesn’t falls by the wayside. That’s where the rawness comes — we’re always trying things.”
Miller first learned of this music when he was a lonely art student in Philadelphia. He found himself wandering over to the Free Library of Philadelphia and checking out the recordings there. He found a rich world of sound beyond the MTV pop he had been exposed to.
“I was just shocked and amazed about how much music was made over the years.”
With a pawn shop guitar he bought a few years earlier, he started learning the music as best he could “by trial and error.”
Later after he had moved to Joplin, Missouri, he met Leeper and DiCharry in jam sessions he was leading at a local club. He liked what they were doing and they started exploring together as a trio.
What started out as exploratory jams coalesced into a working outfit sometime around 2008. Miller admits he’s not sure of the date.
DiCharry and Leeper bring contrasting Southern life experiences to the ensemble. DiCharry was an Air Force brat who moved a lot and absorbed music wherever he went.
Leeper spent his youth playing in his family’s country band.
“He’s an introvert” who lets the sounds he wrests from all manner of instruments do the talking for him.
The trio got a chance to play to larger audiences when it started working as the opening act for southern rockers ZZ Top. Going to playing for club-size crowds to 10,000 people certainly was different. Still, Miller said, “we know who we are” and the size of the crowd doesn’t change that.
“It’s weird how not weird it is for us.”
Miller said the band is not simply imitating those records he heard years ago in Philly.
“The thing that everybody needs to remember is traditional music was not always traditional. The music I admire, when it was made it was radical and they stole from their predecessors and they made something that made sense in their time.”
On the Americana scene, some acts steal and some imitate. “I put us in the category of stealing from whomever and wherever we want.” The difference is between creating and curating, putting the music in “a bell jar to keep it pure and safe.”
The Ben Miller Band harvests its ingredients from the past and makes something new. “Like making a new vest from old cloth.”