These days the banjo is everywhere, but when Split Lip Rayfield started up 20 years ago the instrument wasn’t as common. The Wichita “thrash-grass” band performs Saturday at Bluestem in Ames.
Split Lip’s banjo player, Eric Mardis, said he was drawn to the instrument after hearing Bela Fleck play during a Grateful Dead live broadcast on the radio while doing some “psychic exploring” with friends.
“It really called to me, the sound of the banjo,” Mardis said. “I was surprised you could make it do things other than ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ As soon as I heard it, I knew I had to find a banjo. It was good timing, I got into it and then, boom, there was a growing scene for banjo music.”
But beyond the banjo, one of the big draws of Split Lip Rayfield has been Jeff Eaton’s homemade, on-strong bass. It was made from the gas tank of a 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis and uses a Weedwhacker line for its string. That instrument along with Mardis’ banjo work and Wayne Gottstine on guitar have made Split Lip popular on the festival circuit. The band will also be performing at Camp Euforia near Iowa City in July.
The two shows will offer fans a contrast in how Split Lip Rayfield shows work. At festivals, bands usually have a tight time frame in which to play, while a club show allows the band some space to stretch out a little more.
“Club shows usually feel more intimate,” Mardis said. “You’re not as high above the crowd and you can usually play a lot longer. I think, depending on the day, club shows lend themselves to being a bit more of a party. Bars tend to do well when we play. At festivals, you don’t get to connect with the crowd as much.”
Split Lip Rayfield plays in a style similar to bluegrass, but it’s far from traditional bluegrass. Mardis described the band’s members as “frustrated rockers.” There’s crossover for fans of the style, but if you’re expecting music in the style of Earl Scruss or Bill Monroe you might come away disappointed.
“We had these instruments and whatever came out of us at the time is what we ran with,” Madris said. “It’s kind of the same way now. We found ourselves doing things that weren’t rock, but we were infusing a lot of energy into it like you would with rock music. We played what we could play; this is what came naturally out of us.”
It’s been seven years since Split Lip Rayfield released its last album, “I’ll Be Around.” That is the only album SLR has released since the death of guitarist Kirk Rundstrom in 2007. But that may be changing soon.
“Wayne has a bunch of new tunes put together, we’re hoping to have something finished and available to people this summer. Late June or maybe July.”
So keep an eye on the merch table when Split Lip Rayfield returns to Iowa for Camp Euforia.
Split Lip Rayfield
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bluestem, 3329 Lincon Way, Ames