“Man, you want all my secrets!” singer-songwriter and mandolinist Jason Andre quips. I’m pressing him for details about The Midatlantic’s reunion at Bluegrass Bash on May 3. It’s their first public show after more than a year’s hiatus. “We may play ‘Hurry Up and Wait,’ ‘Never Be,’ ‘Constant’ and ‘Down The River’—a song I released during my solo days,” Andre tells.
A couple years ago The Midatlantic were successful by many definitions: They culled a large local fan base, released an album (“Sounds Over Water”), and were playing lots of shows, including an appearance at FloydFest in 2016. However, with a heavy performance load—along with differing visions of direction, ambitions, and sound—it became increasingly difficult to hold it together as a band.
“It got to the point where it was a lot of work, a lot of tension, and stressful,” Andre admits. “It had lost the fun and enjoyment, and with that the creativity.”
After going their separate ways, Steve Schroeder (former guitarist) moved back to Florida and Will Maxwell (former violinist) continues to play across Wilmington. Andre says he was able to dive inward to rediscover his creativity with open mics and private solo performances to flesh out his work. He played alongside Justin Lacy’s 15-person ensemble for a few shows and tapped into a new audience with the release of last year’s kids’ album, “Sea Songs for Little Pirates.” Former Midatlantic bandmates Ben Sciance (drums, banjo) and Allan Upham (bass) contributed greatly.
“[Ben, Allan and I] get together every now and then and play punk rock for fun,” Andre tells. “Then [we] played a friend’s wedding back in the fall and afterward looked at each other and thought, Maybe we should revisit this with a new approach. So here we are, back at it.”
New to The Midatlantic is guitarist William Small (frontman of Billy Heathen). Andre originally invited Small to play mandolin for live performances of “Sea Songs For Little Pirates”—freeing himself to play guitar. While the foursome look and play the part of a bluegrass band, Andre says they are working to morph into something different.
“I guess the key difference has been Ben taking a break from the drums and really digging into playing the banjo,” Andre explains. “We’ve played a few private gigs acoustically and so it’s worked out, but I know he’s itching to get back on the drums. In lieu of having drums, it’s forced us to collectively play more percussively, while passing the melodies around.”
The freshly reassembled players also have a great deal of encouragement pouring in from fellow musicians, promoters, friends and family. Nevertheless, they don’t have plans to hit a stage every weekend or pack the tour bus just yet; they still have families, friends, jobs, and mortgages to balance.
“We’re all in a pretty realistic adult phase in our lives,” Andre notes. “When we do perform, we want it to be special. . . . There may be some festivals or other events on the horizon, but for now, we’re just happy to be making music. Wilmington and our Cape Fear family has been super supportive through our ups and downs, making us better musicians, more professional, and more thankful every day. We live in one of the best places in the world!”
Thalian’s third annual Bluegrass Bash will feature local players of Massive Grass and Durham’s Chatham Rabbits. Local beer and food trucks will kick off a pre-show party at 6:30 p.m. in the parking lot before each band takes to the main stage at 7:30 p.m. The Midatlantic will offer throwback tunes, bluegrass standards, and even a couple of new songs and instrumentals. “Rolling On,” “Waiting at the Station,” “Lonely Roads” and “Shovels For Your Grave” are among new titles.
“It’s completely cliché, but it feels like a lot of my songwriting, lyrically, is steeped in ‘out with the old, in with the new,’” Andre observes. “Appreciating the good things for what they were/are but having to make hard decisions and having regrets about others … or just waking up from a bad dream! Ultimately, though, a lot of it is finding comfort in renewal and moving on. From an objective point of view, the musical energy is a pretty intense mix of full-steam ahead until the boiler explodes, at which point you’re launched into some ethereal space of sound and color—which I think paints a pretty good picture of trying to combine punk-rock with bluegrass and … I don’t know what! [laughs] Outer space maybe…”
With new arrangements and approaches this Friday, Andre plans to play an old handmade tenor-slide guitar built by his wife’s great uncle. Keith “Ironman” Andre (also known as Andre’s dad) will join in on 12-string for the event, too. “I’m super excited to play the finale with all three groups at the end,” Andre notes. “Grand Ol’ Opry style.”
Andre has a handful of songs played a few times in the previous iteration of The Midatlantic, while some never saw the light of day. Ben Sciance brought with him a couple of works-in-progress, which are nearing completion, as well as interesting new melodies and arrangements. Andre, Sciance and Upham have spoken the same musical language always, which includes a bit of shared influences in grunge, punk and metal.
“We’ve always mused about taking our songs in a more dynamic direction,” Andre says. “Blending styles, pulling out unexpected sounds from nontraditional instruments. We all want to rock out, but at the same time, we want to explore more sound space and throw a curve ball at our listeners’ ears.”
But it doesn’t mean The Midatlantic are planning to enter a recording studio anytime soon. “For now we’re just getting back on our feet, and enjoying making some noise.”