Six Massive-Sounding One-Man Bands

Photo by Nina Westervelt

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The one-man band is a curious, nebulous concept. Depending on who you ask, the one-man band might be defined as a carnival worker stacking as many instruments as possible onto his back and squeaking and squealing as much as possible, or it may more simply be comprised of a single, overly-earnest artist and a humble guitar. Thankfully, there are plenty of acts that fit well into a rustic, gritty middle ground between such extremes. While some of the more ambitious artists of this ilk manage to command control over a number of instruments—both acoustic and plugged-in—others are able to give a plucky banjo and some dramatic boot-stomps the feel of a surging power trio. Some of these may take a member or two on the road with them occasionally, but it’s when the artist creates alone that the one-man band magic undeniably reveals itself in a gut-tugging, rib-wrenching fashion.

1. Possessed by Paul James

Konrad Wert came up with the Possessed by Paul James moniker as a way to channel the spirits of his late grandfather, Paul, and his father, James. And until very recently, he worked as a full-time school teacher while perform live on the side. Indeed, whether Wert is percussively stomping on an old wooden box, sawing a dusty fiddle, picking a banjo, or yelping a song as his head bobs and weaves from a seated position, fans are never under the impression they are seeing and hearing something of this earthly realm. The mix of roots and emotional electricity at a Possessed by Paul James show is akin to a live electric socket missing its cover as stripped wires spark with flickers of enthralling danger. The albums released under the PPJ name have increased in quality each time out, beginning with 2006’s self-titled debut, and all the way to 2014’s widely-acclaimed There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely.

2. Reignwolf

Over the past few years, one will be hard-pressed to uncover an artist that’s generated more amplified lightning while hardly releasing any studio recorded music than Canada-native slinger Jordan Cook. Known to more and more these days as Reignwolf, Cook clearly subscribes to the quality-over-quantity approach as he has but three singles available, though each of them are greasy, thrilling blues-inflected rock-ragers. From 2014, “Are You Satisfied” is a menacing, entrancing number that’s helped Reignwolf become a regular name on festival posters across the globe. Comparisons to the ubiquitous blues-rock duos from Akron, Ohio and Detroit are inevitable (The Black Keys and White Stripes, respectively), but Cook’s slinging and singing and sense of when to throw the hammer down, and when to let off the throttle a touch, is an impeccable sense, and his sound is all his own.

3. William Elliot Whitmore

This farm boy from Iowa features a low roll of a growl of that betrays his exterior of Midwestern-calm. If Whitmore lived and performed a century ago, few would believe he was a fresh-faced fellow a day younger than 80. With his latest, direction-shifting album, Radium Death, Whitmore beefed up his overall sound while he invited additional musicians to record with him for the first time. But even with that One Man Band-style discretion, sparse, splintery tunes such as “Civilizations,” and “Have Mercy,” stack-up nicely with his previous solo-stompers such as 2009’s “Old Devils,” or anything from his excellent Field Songs LP from 2011.

4. Lincoln Durham

Once a part of the hubby-wife duo Liz and Lincoln, which dissolved when the couple divorced, Lincoln Durham has explored the murkier side of Americana, through his must-have pair of albums, 2012’s The Shovel vs. The Howling Bones, and 2013’s Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous. Thick electric blues, mixed with the picking of a self-made cigar box guitar, among other rustically stringed instruments, lend Durham’s blend of roadhouse rock and front porch folk a gnarly texture that isn’t easily brushed off once it’s forced upon you. When Durham’s popping strings and pounding beats, even a larger festival stage can feel entirely too tiny to hold him in.

5. Shakey Graves

Perhaps more than any other one-man band on the festival circuit these days, Alejandro Rose-Garcia, has broken through to the mainstream in a major way. Long gone are the days where he and his instrument sit lonely on a small side-stage or an empty bar, as the buzz built by his near-perfect breakthrough, Roll the Bones led to the universal praise received for his latest album, When the War Came, not to mention the expertly performed live shows. Similar to the aforementioned Whitmore, Shakey Graves can now be heard and seen as an actual band, and not the solitary outfit it once was, but again, the truth and greatness of what sent Shakey Graves to its current heights lies within the realm of when Garcia wanted to shake his acting past (Friday Night Lights), and embrace the ruminations and feelings within his own self that lie deeper than where a screenwriter can reach.

6. Scott H. Biram

Scott H. Biram ‘s impressive catalogue can be described as greasy, grimy, bloody, whiskey-soaked, and profane. With a fuzzed-out, fully-jacked electric guitar, Biram can pull-off crunchy garage metal, or he can replace his dingy trucker cap for a broken halo when he offers up jangling acoustic renditions of gospel-rich numbers. Biram’s 2014 record, Nothin’ But Blood is a cohesively complete record that never veers into single-style monotony. His dragster-quick interpretation of “Alcohol Blues” is as crude as “Gotta Get to Heaven,” is talk-in-tongues honest. There are few artists working today who can embody Saturday Night Sin and Sunday Morning Redemption under one hat the way Biram successfully does.