Akron/Family’s Seth Olinsky would like to be Jerry Garcia, at least for a minute. And he wouldn’t mind if the Dead’s people knew this.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if Phil and Bobby showed up?” the bearded, bespectacled guitarist asks quietly, before leading the crowd around Union Pool’s campfire in an acoustic sing-along of “I Know You Rider.” Though Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and Garcia’s other ex-bandmates are indeed in town for their own show, they might as well be on Mars. (Or maybe we are.) Next to Olinsky, eyes stinging from the smoke, Akron bassist Miles Seaton and drummer Dana Janssen join in; behind them looms a freshly paraded horn section, who’d led the audience outside playing “Auld Lang Syne,” Albert Ayler–style.
And while Olinsky’s chops, free-jazz ears, and beardo abandon would make him a righteous Garcia stand-in, he’s needed elsewhere. Specifically, here. His band is way better at jamming between songs than the Dead are these days, with unbroken segues from droned strums up through Afro-psych throbs and, ideally, on into inspired chaos. On New Year’s Eve at the Knitting Factory, hipster girls stage-dive with synchronized Busby Berkeley arm-sweeps into seething moshers. At the New Museum in March, Baltimore vocal dadaists the Lexie Mountain Boys materialize out of the horn parade in gypsy spangles, toting mandalas and chanting nonsense. Tonight, beneath a late-March drizzle, the trio find themselves around a campfire under the BQE.
“What do you want your music to sound like?” asks Seaton, the band’s instigator, pondering the question over tacos a few weeks later at Grand Morelos (“The Psychedelic Donut” in Akron-speak), not far from their old mega-communal Williamsburg digs. “[Swiss artist] Urs Fischer. The dude bulldozes the floor. What does he do when he knows he’s going to be in the Biennial with 200 other artists? He cuts a hole in the wall. It’s not a matter of trying to be better. It just doesn’t even relate.”
Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, the six-year-old band’s new album, takes the earthly form of indie rock, split between drum-machine meditations (Janssen’s “Creatures”), quiet pulses (Seaton’s “River”), and noise-pocked dream-suites (Olinsky’s “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon”). But it also points far away: at Native-American holy man Black Elk, at African grooves, at field recordings made in rural Pennsylvania (where Olinsky returned after peacing on Brooklyn), and at the tie-dyed American flag on the cover, which hangs behind them while they play.
The album’s opener (and their live show’s new climax), “Everyone Is Guilty,” begins with a demure chant, an outgrowth of an old Akron affinity for quiet, participatory invocations about love and space. But it slowly turns into a fiery self-indictment. “Others already looked/And they have seen what they want you to see,” Olinsky sings.
“So much information is acceptable to so many people,” he explains. “I could sign on to the Internet, find out that in 1975 and 1976 there was a Polynesian noise scene, download some, and go, ‘Holy shit! That’s wild!’ So, genuinely excited, I decide to start a Polynesian noise-funk band with my girlfriend. The reality is that it sounds like Wolf Eyes, which I understand, but it has these quirks, which are traditional Polynesian instruments. So I order the instruments from eBay, and all of a sudden, I’ve made my own Polynesian noise record, but I don’t understand the political underpinnings of that music. And that’s definitely a danger with where we’re at—where our culture is at—mimicking the surface of all these things that we take momentary interest in because so much is available to us, and not having the depth and history and formalism that was the structure and the foundation of those ideas.”
Often, the band’s reference points come by way of a favorite Akron word: “investigation.” As in, when founding guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof left in 2007, just at the point when most bands find permanent forms, it was left to the Akrons to investigate being a trio. (Olinsky recently investigated African music, spending a month engineering and playing in Ghana.) Mostly, by dint of reality, they’ve investigated glorious instability: multiple expanded lineups, last-minute horns arranged with Michael Kammers, and the challenge, like the Dead before them, of communicating that thing that’s followed. “It’s just us trying to hang out,” Seaton says of Set ‘Em Wild. Though tagged as a cult in the freak-folk scare of ’03, Akron/Family ain’t that. But they are, it seems, a family.
The night after Union Pool, Olinsky and Janssen watch the Dead themselves at Roseland. “It’s amazing all the stuff they went through—drugs and kids and their whole lives—and they’re still playing together, hanging out, after 40 years,” Olinsky marvels. “I’ve been doing it for six, and just that’s crazy.” He sings along a bit, maybe a little sad he’s not up there, but recognizing exactly where the Dead are coming from—chaotic lineups, political underpinnings, and all. A lineage, foundation, and form. No investigation needed.
Akron/Family play Bowery Ballroom May 6