Bigfoot Yancey’s first full-length album is a collection of well-crafted tunes demonstrating solid musical skill and sound poetic judgment. But most importantly, it’s unpretentious, moving, and a hell of a lot of fun.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Bigfoot Yancey
Ten minutes before stepping onto Wasser Brewing Company’s stage the four members of Bigfoot Yancey gather across the street, next to their van. It’s an all-white Ford. One of those tall, narrow, 15-passenger types. The sliding door has a few crimps in it by the bottom corner. I don’t know whether the rest of it is equally banged up. Dusk has thrown that dark slate gray color across the sky showcasing the still dormant tree limbs across its canvas like those “tangled bine-stems” Thomas Hardy once wrote about. Even though windows wrap completely around the van’s body I still find myself thinking about that Instagram meme one of my high school students proudly showed me a few years ago: showing a similar, windowless, ride with “Hey Kids! Free Candy!” spray-painted across the side. I chuckled but I kept the joke to myself. After all, I had only met the band about 15 minutes earlier, and social decorum demands that you wait at least two hours before cracking “white van” jokes with new acquaintances…five hours if the van has no windows.
I don’t remember what Yancey’s front man Mike Angel said when he finished rummaging through a bag sitting behind the passenger seat, but I remember the brown paper sack he held up once he turned around. Inside that sack rested a fifth of Woodford, and in short order the band passed it around. More of a $20 Early Times drinker myself, I had to admit I got a kick—metaphorical and biological—from the added bite you get when you spend twice as much for the bottle.
“Hell,” Yancey bassist Kevin Grove said yanking the bottle free of the sack letting the latter fall to the cement, “we don’t need this.” With that, the bottle circled the group one more time. After his second snort, Angel, dropped into a catcher’s squat and patted his palms on the sidewalk.
“Yep,” he said. “That’s our pre-game prayer.”
The swagger Bigfoot Yancey carried as they strolled back to the brewery wasn’t the sort you see when state-ranked football teams get off the bus, staring through you because they’re about to kick your ass with emotionless mechanical purity. Rather, Yancey’s confidence boasted an exuberance. A lot of bands say they’re happy, but be it a corner brewery in a small town or a big festival in the Circle City, Bigfoot Yancey wants to be there. And they don’t want to be there solely for the musical experience—joyous enough on its own to be sure. They’re into the crowd. I saw it crossing the street when guitarist Jerin Kelly turned to me, flashed a natural grin, and extended his hand. I saw it again when banjoist Loran Bohall (who also plays a powerfully haunting handsaw) reacted to Wasser’s bar-top. Comprised of two long, jagged planks of local poplar, cut a few miles away and coated under enough clear wood finish to preserve it well beyond the apocalypse, Bohall marveled upon it. A woodworker himself, he launched into an enthusiastic soliloquy describing his own work with massive planks much like those propping up our beers.
The band’s high spirits, lively and intoxicating as they are on stage, carry over just as powerfully on plastic. Hills, Bigfoot Yancey’s first full-length album, offers a cross-section of the band’s talents showcasing not only their energy, their technical precision, and their vocal power but also their ability to bend a tune to a bluegrass bent on one track, a near-rock folk anthem on another, and soulful Americana everywhere else.
The record opens with a pair of upbeat songs, the fervent title track and the equally up-tempo follow-up “Acid Rain.” But the album’s soul sits in the tunes which follow. “Blue Clouds” demonstrates the band’s aforementioned technical control, patiently moving through the speaker’s heartfelt expression of the paradox musicians face alone on the road in some of the most remote parts of the country. Hills middle quarto is anchored by “Coyote,” a captivating track featuring Bohall’s near-onomatopoeiadic work at the saw which bookends a slow, but addictive melody. The album’s multi-dimensional effect becomes most noticeable in the final set of tunes, specifically the 11th track, “Say What You Mean.” Built around a solid melody, the song’s traditional rock structure could easily transition to an electric session, but sounds every bit as natural (and in many ways more so) to the array of acoustic strings which perform it.
In sum Hills is both a combination of Bigfoot Yancey’s patient development as a group of musicians as well as a testament to their appeal as a group of people. And it’s the latter, more than anything which sells the band. As good as the record is (and it’s very, very good…after about six dozen sessions on my computer I still can’t turn it off), it’s the band’s cosmic allure in person which makes becoming a fan worth the experience. Not because they cast the glitz and aura as a set of Kliptch-level superstars (but if that happens, they could pull it off), but because they stand before you as authentic human beings. Happy to play their stuff. Happy to toast the crowd. Happy to down a shot of Woodford. Happy to be a bunch of great friends calling themselves Bigfoot Yancey.