Tour offers Steelwheels chance to try new tunes

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Six String Concerts presents The Steels Wheels Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. The Ragbirds opens. Tickets are $5-$25. Visit sixstring.org.

Trent Wagler figures his band, roots/Americana quartet The Steel Wheels, has about 20 songs that are (for the most part -- more on this later) finished and rehearsed, but not yet recorded. Which he figures promises a whole lot of fun on the band's first tour leg of 2014.

With no new album to tour on (2013's No More Rain was a reimagining of some older, "forgotten" songs from the band's informal and formative days) and blessed with some time off before and after the turn of the calendar, Wagler anticipates the addition of two to three new songs in every set.

"As a music fan, I want to hear songs I know from the albums, and we make sure to not just chuck our album songs," Wagler told The Beat.

"But if it's a band I really love, I also want to hear what they're excited about right now. And for me, my favorite part of what we do is 'the next song.' "

Wagler said he welcomes the opportunity to play unrecorded songs in front of an audience. Not only does the crowd provide palpable feedback as to what might or might not be working, he said, but the immediacy of the live performance allows for some risk-taking among the members of the band that might not exist when in the studio, and every note is being permanently left for posterity.

"Taking songs on stage is a whole different level of laboratory," Wagler said.

"There can be a sort of forced creativity in the studio, and that can be amazing. But there are other times when you feel like a song could have been better if you'd played it live for a few more months. They are two totally different arts. Our band tries to be the best we can at both."

The band formed in 2004 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, gathered from friends who would sit in with Wagler at "solo" gigs. They eventually began sitting down intentionally together to play and write. Having played together in both electric and acoustic settings, the gathered quartet drew on a combined love of folk, bluegrass and gospel music. The rich, pristine four-part harmonies featured on many Steel Wheels tunes are based on the members' common Mennonite upbringing.

"That tradition is known for four-part harmony singing. My dad and his three brothers had a vocal group, and when I was a kid. they'd have rehearsal night and I'd run around the church and get in trouble while they were singing," Wagler recalled.

"One of the cool things about this band is we didn't set out to find certain guys who did certain things. We all just sort of became friends and gravitated toward our common musical interests. It was later that we realized we could sing this four-part stuff if we wanted to."

While there's nothing traditionally "gospel" about the band's songs, Wagler said, he does enjoy the varying song forms the band employs, from lyrical songwriter fare to simple "verse/chorus songs with simple, locked-in harmonies."

Sounds interesting. Wonder what they've been working on lately?

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