An eager crowd of about 80 guests packed the seats and floor space of the Grinnell Arts Center’s Loft Theater on January 27 to see Iowa-turned-Minneapolis band, The Pines, perform from its latest album, Above the Prairie. The band had been invited to Grinnell by both the Grinnell Area Arts Council and the Center for Prairie Studies, to perform in the town. Tickets were sold out more than a week before the show.
The evening kicked off with a lively reception on the first floor of the Arts Center, the castle-like old Stewart library building in which the Grinnell Area Arts Council resides. Local restaurants contributed beer, wine, and venison stew, as guests of all ages milled in and filled the building. Local duo Pink Neighbor, (Katie In and Erik Jarvis) played before the lounge’s fireplace while people gathered around and finished their drinks. Pink Neighbor’s themes of rambling and seeking were a good setup for The Pines. The songs were playful, with an upbeat Indie-Americana vibe. In and Jarvis took a turn at keyboard, guitar, and lead vocals, but it was In’s clear singing that was most memorable. After this opener, smiling ticket holders were ushered to the fourth floor, and into the black box theater of the Loft, where three chairs and instruments awaited The Pines.
David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey started The Pines in 2002, and have since honed their sound—a moody and acoustic alt-country blend, mixed with Midwestern folk lyricism. Joined by bandmate Alex Ramsey, Benson Ramsey’s brother (the Ramsey brothers have ties to Iowa folk music royalty, as they are the sons of guitarist Bo Ramsey, who is husband of Pieta Brown, Greg Brown’s daughter), on keyboards, the trio took the stage, sat down, and played without a word of greeting. The band opened with the wonderfully evocative “Hanging from the Earth,” and the audience was immediately spellbound.
Ramsey and Huckfelt alternated lead vocals throughout the set, but they were smart to have Ramsey start off with this first song, as it had an aching, emotional quality that lasted throughout the evening. The Loft hummed with atmospheric chords, the pair’s guitars, and Ramsey’s emotive voice. The band seemed to have cracked open a kind of communal landscape of memory in the intimate room; a shared sense of loss, edged with hope. Fight or flight, oh I’m flying over the fields, Ramsey sang, and if I say I’m alright, then I’m lyin’ / Am I dreamin’ or is this real / Am I dreamin’ or is this real / Skeletons of buffalo, roam the great plains / And the rooster on the arrow is bleeding in the rain”
The band members are native Iowans, now living in Minneapolis and contributing to the Twin Cities’ acoustic sound with their signature ambient chords and loops. Their move was the reverse of mine, coming from my native Minneapolis to make a home in Iowa only a few years ago. And perhaps that’s why I felt such an instant sense of recognition in their music and lyrical imagery. My feeling of familiarity and commonality seemed to be one that the entire audience shared. Was everyone adrift in thoughts of lost times, as I was? Throughout the concert I found myself thinking of my father, a lifelong railroad man who had passed away less than a year ago. I also thought of the times I’ve spent alone on the road. I thought I could hear similarities to some of my other favorite road musicians—J.J. Cale, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, and Townes Van Zandt. But if those musicians have laid claim to their parts of the country, The Pines own the Midwestern freeways that traverse the farms and grasslands. In fact, the first time I heard The Pines, it was on the car radio while I drove alone on I-80, just after twilight, headed east, cutting past acres and acres of farmland that, itself, had once cut through prairie. It was a perfect backdrop for their music. It seems that The Pines have tapped into the viewpoint that prairies exist, now, more often in memory or imagination than as a feature of the landscape. What we try to recapture in prairie restoration is something the band aims to recapture in song.
The three musicians, who remained seated through the concert, slowly loosened into enjoyable conversation with the audience. They wore stocking hats and brown sweaters, each in a different style; and each guy wore a chain around his neck, on which hung metallic pieces I couldn’t identify, but which reminded me of my dad’s old railroad switch keys. We work hard, the band seemed to be telling us. We are of the land, we aren’t better than you. We’re not here to put on a show, just to share our music.
At times the concert was haunting—straight up Midwestern Gothic—rife with musical nods to dead towns, pioneer ghosts, and collapsed barns. Songs like “Sleepy Hollow,” brought all three voices together, briefly, on the chorus, and the effect was like hearing the howl of wind through the fields, or the birdcall of a distant train whistle. We in the audience knew such sounds, because we live in these open spaces, these “flyover” states. What The Pines brought to us in Above the Prairie was, in part, access to the peculiar anxiety of life on the prairie: What can we make of the land here? How can we prosper, how can we sustain what’s good? And also, What can never be ours? What are we missing out on?
At other times, the group’s sound was grounded, modestly proud, and even optimistic. And this was the tone that the concert favored overall—leaving out songs like “Villisca” (an instrumental about the small Iowa town known for its 1912 axe murders), but soaring on songs like “Where Something Wild Still Grows.” Their closing song, “Aerial Ocean,” was what Ramsey laughingly referred to their “one happy song.” In it, he cried out, hold on / hold on to me, and I felt it as a prayer to the Earth.
When their set was finished, the crowd called them back out for an encore. By that time, the mood in the theater was pure camaraderie. When asked whether the audience had any questions, someone up front said, “How do you feel connected to the prairie?” There was a long pause, and laughter, as Huckfelt wasn’t sure how to answer. But the band’s connection was apparent and organic, one expressed better in music than talk. “It’s so rare,” Huckfelt observed, “to have so many prairie lovers in one room!”
What I loved about the band’s music is what I love about the prairie. While it can seem unchanging, its steadiness is one part of its unique expression. If you have an opportunity to know it more intimately, you can see that it is rich in cooperative diversity. It is abundant in detail—and beautiful—in all its subtle, tonal wildness.