Jen Spiegel/slideandbanjo.com

Bluegrass group The Way Down Wanderers poured their hearts and souls into their Oct. 1 performance in front of a bubbly audience at Eddie’s Attic, a local music venue in North Decatur. 

For singer Collin Krause, the show served as proof of the band’s recent progress and success. 

“Last time we played here, there was almost nobody in the crowd,” he told the group of onlookers. “So seeing all of you really warms our hearts.” 

The five-man band squeezed onto the stage, sporting their hippie-esque look — years of touring, traveling and recording all reflected in their rugged appearance and soulful sound. 

While the band is regarded for their unique mix of Americana genres, The Way Down Wanderers hail from a part of the country not typically recognized for these styles. “They’re from Chicago?” asked one audience member. “I don’t believe it!” said another. Believe it or not, the group traveled from Peoria, Ill., a town just 30 minutes south of the big city. 

The group recently released their sophomore album, “illusions,” which at times strays from the bluegrass melodies apparent on their self-titled, debut record. For this particular Atlanta performance, however, the group stuck to their roots and organized their setlist around their original sound, playing crowd favorites such as “Your Will Is a Wildflower” and “Wildfire.” The group even took musical risks by adding variations to their recorded tracks, including a mean banjo solo on “ALL MY WORDS” and a live fadeout on “CROOKED PINES.” 

The band members achieved impressive harmonies, with each member jumping in on the vocal arrangements to create a single, magnificent sound. The beauty of their overall tone surfaced through the individual instrumental blends, which created a unified, upbeat and toe-tapping rhythm. To add to this overflowing pool of talent, each of the members displayed their multi-instrumental skills. Co-lead singer Austin Krause-Thompson took breaks from his guitar playing to accompany the band on synthesizer and shaker. Krause traded between acoustic and electric guitar, while also swapping his mandolin for a fiddle. Bassist John Williams surprised the crowd with spoken word, while banjo player Travis Kowalsky took over on electric guitar. Last but not least, drummer John Merikoski took a hiatus from his kick drum to showcase his show-stopping skills on the spoons, an odd instrument to see today. 

The two frontmen sublimely fed off each others’ energy. While both displayed their unique voices and vocal ranges, Krause-Thompson took the stage with a calm and collected energy as Krause jumped up and down during various points of the performance with his beaming smile and swaying dreadlocks. 

The Way Down Wanderers proved case in point that music is best experienced live in its rawest form. The band often boasts that their live performances are arguably just as good as their recorded versions, but hearing the rustic strums of a mandolin on headphones draws no comparison to experiencing the low hum of an upright bass in person. Besides showcasing the beauty of live music, the band also commented on bluegrass’ unfortunate decline, as it is a genre that younger audiences are turning their backs on. 

The Tuesday night crowd was a small but mighty crew, mostly comprised of older couples and a handful of families, unafraid to whoop and holler after a crushing fiddle solo or a soothing melody of harmonies. Although audience members sat at round tables, their enthusiasm was infectious as they tapped their feet to the upbeat rhythm of the kick drum. During one point in the performance, a particular audience member could not suppress her urge to dance any longer, so she stood up and started grooving to the beat. She earned a raucous cheer from the crowd and a nod of approval from the band.

The Way Down Wanderers closed their show with an all-acoustic, traditional-sounding bluegrass song and performed it in the middle of the audience, showcasing that audience participation and support is just as important to the group’s overall success as the band members themselves. As the crowd sang along to this final track, the eyes of The Way Down Wanderers gleamed with hope of success for themselves and hope for the future of their beloved bluegrass. 

 

Grade: A-