Savannah's premier bluegrass outfit, City Hotel, will celebrate six years of life with the release of their second full-length album "Don't Go to the Porch," a record that spotlights the growth of the band from an ensemble into a family unit.
The new album follows the band's debut full-length, "Dogged Days," and an EP, "Savannah Grass." With each record, City Hotel has pushed their own boundaries, while maintaining a firm hold on the musical roots they bound from, becoming, in a sense, like the Avett Brothers of bluegrass.
On the surface, they are a solid bluegrass quartet with consistently good songwriting, ripe with influence from the biggest names in the genre. But if you dig just below that surface, on the second or third listen of their albums, you find a host of contemporary influences that have bled into their melodies. Notes of folk greats like Bob Dylan and indie-rock giants like Wilco and Spoon are part of this band's musical life force and embedded into their musical memory.
City Hotel isn't trying to reshape the bluegrass wheel, but rather paying homage to a genre they love while not boxing themselves in creatively to a single songwriting paradigm. This yields an album full of variation and surprises. From ballads to upbeat knee-slappers, "Don't Go to the Porch" is a step up in City Hotel's already stellar repertoire.
Over the years, their compositional style has centered around primary songwriters Cory Chambers (mandolin) and Aaron Zimmer (guitar), who in the beginning brought full songs to the band. As they've continued to play together, both locally and nationally, they've become far more familiar with each other, leading to more collective arranging of the band's songs. In the liner notes, you won't find individual song credits; you find one unit credited: "All songs written and arranged by City Hotel."
"With 'Dogged Days' we started to arrange as a band," banjo player Jay Rudd said. "Some of Aaron's songs and Cory's songs were fully written and they were recorded or performed before [the band.] That was a collection of stuff we had before the band. When we did 'Dogged Days,' that's when we learned the power of our collective arranging skills. We didn't know before that how much a song could change or evolve with more people working on it."
Rudd, Zimmer and Chambers have all helmed lead vocals for City Hotel songs, with bassist Anthony Teixeira singing harmonies. With the latest album, however, Rudd has emerged as a songwriting force, according to Zimmer.
"Jay wrote two of the best songs on the album," Zimmer said. "He's mainly just done instrumental parts."
"I think that's what sets it apart, the time we've spent together," Rudd said. "A lot of bands nowadays are short-lived. They get in a band and then they want to get into a bigger band. It's kind of like stepping stones. You don't have as many bands that are playing together for a long time.
"I think that maturity shows - now we've been playing music together for six years. There's so much to be said for the way an ensemble plays together."
The band's maturity translated into a quick recording process. After two years of playing and touring the songs on "Don't Go to the Porch," and after getting a full dose of real-life studio experience on their debut album, they were more than prepared for the recording process this time around. City Hotel recorded 14 tracks in two days at Elevated Basement in Savannah. All the tracks were recorded live, with very little overdubbing, following the tradition of bluegrass.
"I think we have the intuition now for how a song will go with City Hotel," Zimmer said. "I know what they can bring to the table in terms of arranging. We hadn't developed that relationship yet when we put 'Dogged Days' out."
"It felt a lot more intentional this time around," Rudd said.
"You know who's going to turn left and who's going to turn right and when it's going to happen," Teixeira added.
One of the catalysts for the band's evolution into the present-day incarnation was a major tour last year that included festivals, gigs in foreign towns and, perhaps more importantly, time with each other and each other's families.
"This last year, when we went on the road, we really got to know each other and each other's families," Teixeira said. "We spent time in the northeast. Stayed with my family a bit and stayed with Jay's grandparents on the way up and Aaron's in-laws and members of Cory's family. It's turned into a great big family and it's interconnected. We have a better understanding of each other."
"It's cool to see where people come from, because you get to understand people a little better," Zimmer added.
"I definitely understand Anthony a lot more," Rudd said. "That meal at Anthony's house was life-changing. It was like seeing the eclipse."
"It was a tour that felt good," Zimmer continued. "It's always fun. Usually you come back from a couple of weeks and feel bad. We kept it on an even keel. We stayed with family and ate good food. It was enjoyable."
"Don't Go to the Porch" echoes those sentiments in its songs, melodies, harmonies and even the cover art, which features a photo of Rudd's great-grandmother holding a guitar next to her family and their front porch. The album's title track is an old Chambers family story about a man named Carl.
"There was this story about how he was fixing the back porch, and the whole thing collapsed," Chambers said. "He had a very dry way of talking; a man of very few words. His wife got home from work, and he said, 'Don't go to the porch, because there ain't one.'"
IF YOU GO
What: City Hotel album release party
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 2
Where: Service Brewing, 574 Indian St.
Cost: $10, ages 21 and older