One of the great things about bluegrass music is that it, like its kissing cousin jazz, has always been open to different styles and ideas. While some enjoy the traditional sounds of classic bluegrass bands such as Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, others dig the more avant garde sounds of acts such as Punch Brothers and Bela Fleck. The Atlanta-based outfit Seven Handle Circus tends to gravitate more toward that unorthodox school of musical thought. Since forming in 2010 the band has slowly started to make a name for itself here in the Southeast and beyond. Actually, to hear the band members tell it, 7HC isn’t even really a bluegrass band. Sure, they have the requisite stringed instrument operators, including Richard Burroughs on violin, Colin Vinson on banjo, Shawn Spencer on guitar, Steve Bledsoe on mandolin, and Troy Harris on bass. But then there’s the not so small matter of Jeff Harrison on drums. Suddenly they’re less a bluegrass band and more a folk/rock outfit. Still, the band’s eclectic song choices and boisterous yet melodic live sound cause new reason for debate with each passing song.
“Our sound came mainly out of jamming with each other and not wanting to carry amplifiers,” said Spencer, who, along with Vinson and Bledsoe, also provide the group’s vocal talents. The band sat down with me shortly before playing an energetic set at the Windjammer on Isle of Palms on February 28. The members of 7HC met while students and fraternity brothers at Georgia Tech. At least two members, Bledsoe and Harrison, have been making music together since middle school. The twenty-something musicians drift between polite and bemused during our short interview. When asked the admittedly cliche question about what their dreams are as a band, one member quips, “We want to be the first band with a number one album in Antarctica.” “We want to be innovative, push boundaries,” says another, seeming to get more serious, but then he adds, “Kind of like a good Flaming Lips,” with a sly grin.
The members are quick to throw out names such as Punch Brothers, Bela Fleck, Union Station, and Strength in Numbers when asked about influences. The band is at work on a new album, the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign that has led to working with Tom Drummond of the band Better Than Ezra. Drummond had 7HC down to his New Orleans recording studio, before moving to Zac Brown’s studio in Atlanta. According to Spencer, the new album will have less straight bluegrass music, opting instead for a more folk sound mixed in with influences by everyone from Paul Simon, to Radiohead, to Outkast.
Once the band hit the stage at the Windjammer, it was immediately clear why the band has received so much attention here in the Southeast. Whether playing an original tune like “I’ve Been Around the World” or covering Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” the musicians functioned as a cohesive unit. Spencer, Vinson, and Bledsoe melded their respective voices into a gorgeous three-part harmony that gave me goosebumps. While they were all business when it came to playing their instruments, there also seemed to be a lighthearted mood onstage. This seemed to especially be the case when the band kicked into a cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” which in turn morphed into Beck’s “Loser,” and then, bizarrely yet beautifully, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” Trust me, it totally worked, although seeing Spencer bark the infamous Zack de la Rocha lyrics “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” The small but enthusiastic crowd that had come out to see the band seemed to love the mashup. In the end though, as much as they might try to distance themselves from the notion of being a true bluegrass band, 7HC definitely appeals to lover’s of that musical style. That bluegrass twang is tempered with liberal doses of Americana, folk, and rock, but somewhere up in music heaven I have the feeling that Bill Monroe is watching these young men and smiling in amusement.
Prior to 7HC taking to the stage, the crowd at the Jammer was treated to a short acoustic set by American Hologram from Savannah, GA. Consisting of Craig Tanner, Britt Scott, and Eric Britt, the trio turned in a good set of originals, as well as a great cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” SC music fans might recognize Eric Britt from his days in the band Hazel Virtue.
Devin Grant’s love for live music began back in 1982 when he won tickets off a local radio station to see Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. Had that show been anything other than epic, he would probably be an accountant, or perhaps a podiatrist. Since that fateful day Devin has attended hundreds of live shows. Once he figured out that he could get free tickets in return for writing about the shows, music journalism seemed a logical choice. Devin’s work has appeared in Charleston’s Free Times, The Charleston City Paper, The Post & Courier, Charleston Magazine, and No Depression. He has interviewed the likes of Mike Watt, The Rev. Al Green, Tori Amos, Mike Doughty, Warren Haynes, and Loretta Lynn. He has photographed hundreds of bands, including The Police, My Morning Jacket, The Eagles, Willie Nelson, White Stripes, and Taylor Swift.