Dustbowl Revival and Sammy Miller and the Congregation

Dustbowl Revival and Sammy Miller and the Congregation
The Hamilton, Washington D.C.
November 17, 2017
Photographer/Writer: Bob Adamek

The nearly sold out crowd at Washington D.C.’s The Hamilton Live was treated to the kind of night that made you wish you were in a band, could share such a focused vision, and enjoy the people you worked with as much as the two bands seen on this night. The crowd was loaded for the headliner, The Dustbowl Revival, an 8 piece-touring powerhouse from Los Angeles, California, and they got everything Dustbowl famously delivers and much more.

For starters, the opening act, Sammy Miller and the Congregation, put on a clinic in winning over a crowd that was for the most part, unfamiliar with them. Drummer and bandleader Sammy Miller has created an ambitious project that succeeds by virtue of his band mates buying in all the way. It is part early swing band and part comic production. They are comprised of piano, upright bass, drums, sax, trumpet and trombone, and they have vocals good enough that the band sometimes goes a cappella.

The band started with very sweet traditional songs like the gospel dirge, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”, “Li’l Liza Jane”, and the Fats Waller/Harry Brooks classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. The band’s musicianship was undeniable, the horn solos superb and their section work tight as a fist. Exceptional to note was also the precision of the band’s rhythm hits–absolutely cracklin’–with no member unsure of where the hits were, no band member dragging behind.

Slowly, Sammy Miller brought in the next element: comedy. He walked around the front of the stage in between songs, luring the crowd in with jokes and half-baked stories. He put the band through the paces of musical caricature, hitting the pop high notes of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, poking fun at styles and trends. Finally, he revealed the main course of the set – he wanted to play an opera, a jazz opera, a “jopera”.

By the time the band began to deliver on this undertaking, the crowd was in the palm of their hands, transfixed and hanging on what could possibly happen next. What the band delivered incorporated comedy and tragedy, death and rebirth, all with cheap costumes and plenty of laughs. Their set was a triumph, leaving the crowd giddy and the room buzzing.

Now the scene was nicely set up for the night’s main course: The Dustbowl Revival. Touring on the strength of their self-titled June release, the fifth album in their catalogue, Dustbowl’s writing and style has matured so well it is attracting sold out shows and plumb time slots at music festivals across the country. They have become road warriors playing 200+ dates a year, forging a tightness in musicianship and family that is the hallmark of a top pro band.

The band is astonishingly powerful for what is in reality an acoustic band made up of acoustic guitar, ukulele, upright bass, drums, fiddle, mandolin, trumpet, trombone, and occasional washboard, supporting the male and female lead vocalists. Singers Zach Lupetin and Liz Beebe each handle songs on their own but most often sing in unison, so tightly it sounds like one unique voice.

Their set was dominated by their newest record, hitting the driving party song, “Good Egg”, the low down “Busted, If You Could See Me Now”, and the deliciously melancholy “Got Over”. However, the night’s highlight came when the band invited the horn section from the Congregation up on stage, forming a five-piece juggernaut for the Smokey Johnson song, “It Ain’t My Fault”. The crowd was jacked up by the collaboration, while the horn players took a ride on the funky blues. The newly oversized band worked so well that the Congregation horns were invited to stay for another song, one from the older Dustbowl catalog, “Riverboat Queen”. Bandleader Zach Lupetin seized brilliantly on the moment, directing traffic for the solos by first calling for the trumpet and mandolin to trade licks, then trombone and fiddle, then sax and himself, only whistling instead of playing guitar.

It was pure joy to watch musicians with this level of game making it sound like they have all played together for years. The crowd was completely sated, folks shaking their heads, smiling, high fiving their neighbors. The line for band merch was long, so many wanted to tell the musicians how much they enjoyed the night. The bands moved on the next day to new gigs in new towns, but this particular night left a mark.