Gypsy Lumberjacks: Giants of America

Paul Whyte

It was back in 2009 when I got hired on with The Reader and with only a couple months in I ended up with the chance to attend the last 10,000 Lakes Festival out in the Detroit Lakes area. I’ve always blamed the Dave Matthews Band for that festival not still being a thing, but either way. It was a great experience to be able to check out that amount of bands at my first outdoor/camping music festival experience. I vaguely remember ending off a night with the Gypsy Lumberjacks, I think it was them, pretty sure. Well, I had fun at that festival and I still try to make it out to one or two each summer and, inevitably, the seasons change. That’s the story of how I first found out about this Minneapolis band. I remember a fun intensity at their 10k set and that’s exactly what I’m getting off this album.
On Friday, May 29, Gypsy Lumberjacks will be releasing their new album titled, “Giants of America,” down at The Cabooze in Minneapolis. If you’re down in the Cities at that time, it should be a great show to see as they kick off a mid-west/east coast tour. Before their release in the Cities they will be playing three shows from May 22 to 24 at The Gunflint Tavern in Grand Marais, if that seems like it might be closer in someway, I’d highly recommend stopping in if you’re in the area.
The group is Leif Magnuson on guitar and vocals, Pete Verdin on bass and Benj Karon on the cajon and other percussion. The band stands behind an “Americana” sound, but they go way out from that genre with this album. They are a jam band and I’m not talking about some needless drawn out guitar solos, this is really amazing music. It’s fun, energetic and a truly original take on what I guess they’re calling “Americana.” Yes, there is that element somehow underlying, but did you know that Toyota Camrys are in NASCAR? Think about it. I’ll try to give a few highlights of what this band is all about.
I’m edging on calling this band almost more of a world band, but they shift around quite a bit but fit it all together seamlessly into something pretty great. I have to start with Magnuson’s guitar playing in describing the sound. Oh, he can play the usual expected Americana style, which often brings in a lot of quick taps here and there on top of the standard folk strumming. He’s accomplished at that, but so are a lot of people. Magnuson blows me away on this album with songs like “Elevators.” It’s a mesmerizing twist of flamenco and jazz. I consider flamenco guitar to be one of the most technical styles aside from certain guitar playing that can be found in some metal music. I can’t stop there, Verdin’s bass playing is impeccable, laying the perfect foundation, and Karon rides right along with just the right amount of beats with a wide variety of percussion techniques and tools that I’m not going to sit around and even try to pick apart. When one thinks of a world band, it’s easy to get the image of a seven person band that might have a dedicated drummer on top of a percussionist, they pull it off as a three piece.   
The next song on the album threw me off a little. Playing covers that try at sounding like the original band is alright I guess, but something I appreciate even more is when an artist or band makes a cover their own. I didn’t recognize the very familiar Grateful Dead tune, “Friend of the Devil.” I’ve seen it covered by a few musicians and I’ve even played it at an open mic a few times. On that note, no one ever has, or really ever will cover this song like Gypsy Lumberjacks. The amount of technical playing makes the song practically unrecognizable. It flows from jazz, flamenco to hints of reggae, they took the song apart and made it something somehow original in their own way. There’s just straight up talent on what they did with the song.  
The other material on this album is just terrific. The song “Battles of the Frontiers” brings out some solid songwriting. It starts off with Magnuson’s calm and collected voice over a pretty and fairly simple guitar riff. At first, I was thinking the vocals sounded a little dry, but then the song drops and the vocal harmonies and the band instantly fills everything out into a perfectly tuned song that is perhaps one of the more Americana tracks on the album.
For the most part I enjoyed a lot of the lyrics on the album. There’s the common theme’s of drinking and drugs like on the track, “Bad Boy,” but the chorus really nails it. “Heaven tells me what to say/heaven tells me how to pray/heaven tells me when I need to travel home/heaven tells me the the party’s on/heaven tells me when I’m wrong/heaven tells me when I need to say ‘I love you,’” sings Magnuson.
On the track another theme that I see in Americana music is traveling and with a band name like Gypsy Lumberjacks, this seems fitting. The track “Chasing the Sun,” brings a fun swirl of influences with a certain gypsy feel. There might be a hint of pop music in how the song is laid out, but the slick flamenco guitar solo around the 2:50 mark is above and beyond anything one would expect in your average folk/pop band. I found the thoughtfulness of the lyrics, “Now I have a daughter, she’s getting older, I can see it in her eyes. She wants to wander, she wants to see the world in her own mind,” to be a contrast to some of the more self focused lyrics I’ve listened to on songs about traveling.
I’m going to wrap up this review by just saying that Gypsy Lumberjacks created something meaningful with stunning musicianship. There’s other cool stuff going on with accordions and plenty of territory covered between a contemporary alternative folk band, a world band with Spanish and Eastern European flare and a club jazz band to just name a few elements. They fuse all of these things and more into something incredible. Although I vaguely remember their performance from years ago, I sure remember this band now.