Tangleweed is a band of three forward-looking musical reactionaries from Chicago, Illinois. While the band’s instrumentation is standard bluegrass, their music is anything but. With a repertoire both broad and deep, one listener described them as sounding like “a band playing on a pirate ship off the coast of New Orleans in the 1920s”. Their four CDs have garned critical praise and worldwide airplay, earning the band invitations to appear at major festivals and quality venues around the country.
Tangleweed formed in the summer of 2004, with Paul Wargaski on bass, Billy Oh on fiddle, and Scott Judd on guitar. Add’l founding members Timothy Ryan Fisher and Kenneth “Kip” Rainey also logged several years each on banjo and mandolin respectively. Fisher left the group in 2010 after 300+ shows and three cd’s, while Rainey departed in 2012 after nearly 400 shows and four cd’s.
The current lineup of Judd, Oh and Wargaski passed it’s litmus test with flying colors in July 2012 at Louisville’s “Kentucky Music Weekend”, where a festival crowd of over 1,000 heartily confirmed the band’s viability as an acoustic power-trio. Since that time, the trio has aggressively developed a new sound by re-arranging early material, exploring new musical directions through fresh original compositions, and bringing Judd’s guitar/vocals and Wargaski’s upright bass further into the foreground. Billy Oh’s fiddle work continues to dazzle as before, and remains a key feature of the band’s instrumental forays.
The band established their folk cred with their first CD, “Just a Spoonful (and Other Folksongs of Rural Cook County)”. Engineer Bob Weston recorded the band live to two-track using vintage analog equipment, a setup modeled after the early field recordings that inspired the band. The group recorded thirty songs in a single day, working in a makeshift studio on the second floor of a Logan Square two-flat. The discs’ raw “warts and all” qualities attracted listeners seeking respite from the slick, overproduced records then dominating the bluegrass world. While the band slogged through shows in Chicago bars, copies of the disc were garnering prices of 75 Euros or more overseas.
With Just a Spoonful, the band established a trademark style: CD art modeled after old Folkways record jackets, and tongue-in-cheek liner notes. Though Just a Spoonful is far and away the band’s most traditional record, comprised largely of bluegrass and old-timey standards, there were hints of what was to come, with covers of Duke Ellington tunes, a nod to the Dillards, and raucous ragtime raveup on the title track. The Chicago Reader’s Monica Kendrick wrote, “You know you’ve found a good CD when you can’t decide whether to wax more rhapsodic about its music or its liner notes.”
For their second disc, “Where You Been So Long,” the band paired with engineer Mike Hagler, best known for his work with Billy Bragg and Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue recordings. The group worked with Hagler to retain the live energy of their first disc while expanding their sonic pallet. They also continued to expand their repertoire: the disc covers a broader swath of American music. The 14-song CD features Tangleweed originals mixed with classic bluegrass, old-time country, and Irish tunes. The songs run the gamut from up-tempo rockers (“Hard Times”, “With a Bottle in My Hand”) to delicate ballads (“Leaving of Liverpool”), with hot jazz (“I Found a New Baby”), mountain music (“High on a Mountain), Irish fiddle tunes (“Sir Lucas De Somerville”), and classic bluegrass banjo (“Black Eyed Susie”), generating praise from critics and airplay all over the world.
The band also saw their music on television when their recording of Ola Belle Reed’s “High On a Mountain” appeared on the soundtrack for the PBS series Roadtrip Nation. The band began to travel farther from their Chicago base. Though the band was threatened with firearms on two consecutive trips to Wisconsin, they continued to travel, venturing as far as Hawaii to perform.
For their third full-length, “Most Folk Heroes Started Out As Criminals,” Tangleweed maintained their original bluegrass instrumentation while adding erhu, autoharp, tenor guitar, and accordion to the mix. Fresh originals sung by Rainey, Judd and Oh (“California”, “The Logjam”, “Trishanku’s Heaven”) play well alongside classic murder ballads (“Little Sadie”), Irish rebel songs (“Join the British Army”), smoking instrumental medleys (“Takeup Reel / Cold Frosty Morning / Grey Eagle”), and the Rolling Stones (“Dead Flowers”), generating consistently positive reviews and airtime worldwide.
2011′s, “Please Punch Richard For Me,” marked the band’s first release as a quartet after the 2010 departure of Fisher (banjo). Instant-classic originals like “Cold, Cold Ground”, “Colorado Cabin”, “Logan Square Dance”, and “Rolling Downhill” complement signature treatments of traditionals (“Sloop John B”, “Weila Waila”), and a not-to-be-missed version of The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”, also known as DJ John Peel’s favorite song ever. Judd and Wargaski both make their ukelele debuts. Joe Nelson and Jerry Shelato were enlisted to add drums and jug to the mix, resulting in a new sound consistently hailed as Tangleweed’s strongest release yet.
After eight years, four CDs and well over 400 live performances, Tangleweed continues to combine high-energy performances with impeccable musicianship and a wide-breadth of influences to create a unique sound that is simultaneously modern and old-timey. The band has been hailed in reviews worldwide as a welcome breath of fresh air for lovers of stomping string band music and high lonesome harmonies. Check out Please Punch Richard For Me or the list of upcoming events and hear for yourself.