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Dustbowl Revival’s mix of styles sounds right at home

Folk-blues orchestra Dustbowl Revival. Pictured (L-R, instruments included to help with ID) Matt Rubin (trumpet), Ulf Bjorlin (trombone), Liz Beebe (ukelele), Josh Heffernan (drums), Zach Lupetin (guitar, harmonica), Connor Vance (fiddle), Daniel Mark (mandolin), ÊAustin Nicholsen (bass). Photo by Patrick Martin

Patrick Martin

The core group of Dustbowl Revival includes (from left): Matt Rubin (trumpet), Ulf Bjorlin (trombone), Liz Beebe (ukulele), Josh Heffernan (drums), Zach Lupetin (guitar, harmonica), Connor Vance (fiddle), Daniel Mark (mandolin), and Austin Nicholsen (bass). Patrick Martin

CAMBRIDGE — Zach Lupetin moved to Los Angeles hoping to become a successful screenwriter and playwright. But he started a great band instead.

That band, Dustbowl Revival, revels in a freewheeling mix of (mostly) American roots styles, blended in unequal parts like a sloppy batch of moonshine. It isn’t shape-shifting genre hopping so much as a strain of fusion folk, one that finds common ground between the mandolin and trombone.

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“You’ve probably gathered from hearing the music we do that there’s a wide range of directions this band can go,” Lupetin says on the phone, walking through Brooklyn, N.Y., on a day off from tour, “from that gospel kind of foot-stomp stuff to bluegrass, or even gypsy jazz and klezmer. I think I started seeing how a lot of that connected together. Maybe being overly ambitious, I always just like doing all of it at once.”

The brightest colors in Dustbowl Revival’s sound tend to be dance-oriented bluegrass and hot jazz with an early New Orleans patina. Though bluegrass and jazz occupy very different places in America’s cultural sensibility these days, they have surprising points of overlap. The basic bluegrass format of ensemble melodic statements sandwiching solo turns is a structural cousin of bebop, and banjo was an essential rhythmic voice in much of the earliest jazz.

The band’s name also evokes a Depression-era sensibility redolent of John Steinbeck, and the spirit-raising gospel of the American South.

“I really do believe that there’s an overall kinship between American roots forms, whether it be New Orleans-based jazz and swing, or the bluegrass traditions from Bill Monroe,” Lupetin, 28, explains. “I’m not religious myself, I don’t know why I like religious gospel music so much, to be honest with you, but there’s something that for whatever reason really works and hits really hard. And I think people identify with that. It’s in the American bloodstream, maybe.”

The resulting sound isn’t wholly the result of Lupetin’s precise vision for musical atom-smashing.

A violin student as a child, he switched to electric bass in high school before studying film and creative writing at the University of Michigan. After graduation in 2007, he headed west with plans to make it in Hollywood. Like many transplants in Los Angeles with a similar agenda, he found it tougher going than expected.

Looking for another creative outlet, he posted a series of ads on Craigslist seeking bandmates. The criteria for membership were broad: Lupetin listed about 17 different desired instruments, he says, and a roll call of influences including Fats Waller and Bruce Springsteen’s album “Nebraska.”

Over about five years of gigging and recording (its most recent album, “Carry Me Home,” was released in April), the ensemble has gained and shed various members. Based in Venice, Calif., the core group now includes Lupetin on acoustic guitar and kazoo, Liz Beebe (ukulele), Josh Heffernan (drums), Connor Vance (fiddle), Daniel Mark (mandolin), Matt Rubin (trumpet), Austin Nicholsen or Josiah Mory on bass, and trombonist Ulf Bjorlin. Dustbowl Revival plays Club Passim on Sunday.

Rubin, the trumpeter, was fresh from completing a master’s degree in jazz studies when he saw Lupetin’s recruiting ad online. He was the first horn player to join the band.

“The bluegrass and folk side of things was pretty new to me at that time, but it started to make sense pretty quickly. I enjoy the challenge of trying to fit jazz trumpet playing into that,” Rubin says. “It didn’t take long to find some common ground. We’ve done bluegrass festivals and swing nights playing basically the same sets, and people seem to dig it.”

Though the band is just in time for the contemporary wave of Depression-era chic, it translates sepia tones into 3-D without sounding like the musical fruit of a hipster farmer’s rooftop garden.

Original compositions form the bulk of Dustbowl Revival’s repertoire, but the influence of inherited traditional music is strong. Lupetin followed a long folk tradition by penning original lyrics to the ubiquitous fiddle breakdown “Soldier’s Joy,” belying the tune’s skipping pace with a story reflecting the origin of the title, a narcotic cocktail favored by soldiers injured badly in the Civil War. Elsewhere, traditional numbers like “John the Revelator” and “New River Train” get fresh musical backing.

As for the contemporary appeal of this music, Lupetin says its visceral immediacy touches audiences.

“I think it’s just real. It’s something that you can do in an empty room, with no amplification, anytime. It’s the same kind of three-chord magic that blues and gospel music is starting with and then just twisting it and expanding it from there.”

Rubin also says there’s no expiration date on the impact of powerful music.

“It’s definitely an old-timey style,” he says, “but I listen to a lot of old music that really connects with me emotionally, and I think everybody does. Even if you’re just talking about stuff from 10 or 20 years ago, or Motown stuff, that music doesn’t ever stop connecting with people.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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