Around these parts, we might not know what Graveblankets are. Well, musically speaking, we don't.
That's only because the folk-based pop unit — or pop-based folk ensemble, depending on your stylistic viewpoint — that bears that name never journeyed far beyond its Cincinnati home.
We managed to get two of its members — mandolinist/guitarist/singer Chris Arduser and acoustic/electric bassist Bob Nyswonger — down Lexington way very sporadically in a pair of more overtly pop-directed bands, The Bears and Psychodots. Another co-founder, guitarist George Cunningham, has been a more recent visitor through performances with his Gypsy jazz troupe, the Faux Frenchmen.
But joint endeavors as The Graveblankets seemed destined to remain one of Cincinnati's better kept secrets. Not that the band didn't set bigger sights for its sounds.
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From 1995 to 2000, Arduser, Nyswonger and Cunningham issued four albums of assured folk- informed pop that established a solid Cincinnati fan base. The music, nearly all of which was written by Arduser, was often thematically dark but texturally light. While the songs' story lines take their cue from folk's dark and distant past (among the titles of its tunes: Haul That Carcass, Shoot You Down, The Undead and Acre of Pain), the music is based around melodic hooks fleshed out on mandolin and violin.
"I always say we just play our own mutant brand of pop-folk-rock," said Arduser, who will lead a reconstituted Graveblankets into Lexington on Tuesday at Natasha's Bistro & Bar. "I really don't know any other succinct way to put it. I cannot escape the British pop of my youth. That endlessly informs my songwriting. Actually, it's not that I can't escape it. I don't want to escape it.
"I came fairly late to the folk game, though. I didn't get into Bob Dylan seriously until the early '80s. But getting into Dylan led to getting into Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn. Those writers allowed me to see that folk wasn't just Judy Collins and the New Christy Minstrels. It was this deep, dark well of music that, especially in the cases of Richard and Bruce, seemed inexhaustible."
Arduser made one long, serious stab at taking The Graveblankets out of Cincinnati via a Nashville recording project that wound up as the band's 2000 album, Where It Hurts. It was designed with the partial intent of securing a national recording deal. Several labels expressed interest but none of the deals panned out. Exhausted and frustrated, the band called it quits. Sort of.
"I had been working with The Graveblankets consistently since the late '80s, watching the band slowly gather steam," Arduser said. "But Where It Hurts was the nail in the coffin. The labels all wanted us to be like the Dave Matthews Band, and we were going through a lot of personnel difficulties. After one particular gig in front of not many people where nobody made any money, I just went home and said, 'I think I've done enough.' I wasn't saying it was over, but I knew I was going to move in a different direction."
That was 10 years ago. During the past decade, Arduser continued to perform, releasing a series of strong solo albums that upped the pop factor in his music. Some of that music was even picked up for airplay on Lexington's WUKY-91.3 FM. As Lexington interest began to percolate, Arduser, Cunningham and Nyswonger again picked up The Graveblankets' banner with a very unexpected new recruit.
Rounding out the band's renewed quartet lineup is 18-year-old fiddle and folk prodigy Rosie Carson. Though heavily versed in British and Celtic folk — she has toured with famed British folkster Kevin Dempsey — Carson was up for the more continental Graveblankets sound.
"I knew she could play the Celtic stuff great," Arduser said. "But I had no idea what a fine singer Rosie could be. She's eager to play and learn. So she's ready to go."
Carson also plays a key role in the new Graveblankets album, Error Avenue. The recording is essentially a primer, offering reworkings of several songs from past Graveblankets albums (Guilt in a Suitcase, Rosewood Casket), some revisited Bears music (Trust) and a few folk staples sung by Carson (The Beatles' Blackbird, Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes).
"We won't be playing out all the time," Arduser said of The Graveblankets' plans. "I'm a working musician, so I have to follow where the money goes. I want to keep making these records that really satisfy that need for self-expression. But I can't go broke doing it. That's what happened in the '90s. So I choose wisely the gigs we do. I want them to mean something. We always want to look forward to the next one."