The Dharma Bums String Band takes its name from Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel, “The Dharma Bums,” the legendary beat writer’s exploration into Buddhism in America.
The band’s name reflects the novel’s theme of maintaining simplicity in an increasingly complex world. Either that, or they just thought the name sounded cool.
Whichever the case, the book perfectly reflects the spirit of non-conformity that permeates the Dharma Bums String Band, a combo that’s as likely to play Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” as they are “Hot ‘Lanta” by the Allman Brothers.
The band can be classified, depending on what part of their set you happen to catch, as Americana, swing, jazz or a jam band, but they’re really none of those and all of those at the same time.
“Anything that strikes the fancy of anybody in the band, we give it a try,” promises rhythm guitarist Dave Ossont. “Usually, we can tell pretty quick if it's (for) us.”
The Bums are a family band, made up of Ossont, his brothers-in-law Mike and Dan Stone on guitar and mandolin, respectively, Mike's son Brent, on bass, and Dave's son Kyle, on violin. The folk/bluegrass-style instrumentation doesn’t define or limit this band, whose arrangements are more along the lines of big bands such as Duke Ellington’s.
“Among current bands, we’re probably influenced most by the Time Jumpers or the Hot Club of Cowtown,” explains Ossont. “They both combine that bluegrass instrument setup with western swing and gypsy jazz. We try to simulate the horn parts with mandolin, violin and guitar.”
As might be expected, the band came together from family jam sessions, leading Mike, Dan, Dave and Kyle to put together songs in a more formal way and, after they performed together at a few open mics, Brent moved back into the area to complete their sound.
One of the standard interview questions is, “what gig stands out as special.” The equally standard answer is usually, “they’re all special,” but the Dharma Bums’ answer may surprise you.
“We've played a couple times at senior living communities. We play quite a number of tunes from the Great American Songbook -- things like "Pennies From Heaven," "Stardust," that kind of thing,” says Ossont. “When we played some of those numbers, there were people in the audience with tears in their eyes; many of them came up afterwards and thanked us for playing.
“That's the kind of emotional response that makes being a musician really special.”
The Dharma Bums String Band is preparing to go on a short hiatus when Kyle returns to school, but you’ll have a chance to catch them at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17, at Unity Hall in Barneveld. Admission is $10 for members, $12 for non-members. Opening the show will be Above The Dam.
Mark Sisti is an experienced performer and promoter who writes about local music for the Observer-Dispatch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org