Swamp Boat catches a wave before running aground

by Jordan Green

It’s the last night of November, a Wednesday. It’s the first time the band called Swamp Boat has played the High Point Road Ham’s restaurant, and it might be the last time they play together as a group.

The paper snowflakes hanging from above and the ACC pennants decorating the ceiling skirting around the bar give the restaurant a wholesome family feel, and despite their rowdy presentation the three musicians do nothing to undermine that perception.

At the beginning of the first set, the audience is mostly family members. The Greensboro rapper Tre Michaud makes an early appearance, standing alone on the floor before the band and digging the music. Near the end he’ll take a turn in front of this band of bearded bluegrass cats playing acoustic string instruments and spit out his piece, ‘“Un-American.’”

Unbeknownst to anyone, Michaud’s life will be snatched away in a little more than 72 hours in a senseless murder that will leave the Greensboro music community stunned. Now he is very much alive, glowing with enthusiasm with his ear pricked to music. As a vocalist with his group Tre Stylez, Michaud is a raw talent and an artist with dazzling potential. He mixes delightful sex raps with trenchant political commentary, all done in a spirit of open-handed generosity. He’s also the consummate fan, showing support for his fellow musicians. He’s ubiquitous. Only two days ago he’d popped up at a listening party for Urban Sophisticates at the Lager Haus, and three days before that he was seen at College Hill after a rock show with Tiger Bear Wolf.

Soon the long tables to the side of the stage area fill with a group of vigorous-looking service workers from Natty Greene’s, the South Elm Street brew pup where mandolin player Russ Dunn works as a cook. Friends from New York Pizza where guitarist Ian Pawlowski did a stint for a time anchor the other side. Shots are being emptied at the tables and on the bandstand.

For now, the three musicians are tearing through their staples, a Django Reinhardt instrumental; an original called ‘“Spanish Whiskey’” that sounds something like the Gipsy Kings; an Irish folk song with shouted, drunken lyrics in the mold of the Pogues; the bluegrass standard ‘“Shady Grove’”; and sincere folk songs like Dylan’s ‘“I Shall Be Released,’” John Prine’s ‘“Paradise’” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s ‘“Wagon Wheel’” that seem to be favored by Pawlowski.

The lyrical songs feature Pawlowski’s keening voice set against Dunn’s achingly pretty mandolin playing. The more instrumentally inclined songs take on an incendiary quality with Matt Wells firing off riffs on his acoustic bass slightly ahead of the beat, and Pawlowski and Dunn’s playing exploding in counterpoint against each other. On the Reinhardt tune Dunn drops his pick just before the bass solo, then utters, ‘“Uh oh’… one, two, three, four,’” and the song lurches into a sprint.

Dunn bears himself with old-fashioned showmanship, gritting his teeth, stomping and hollering, at times affecting a percussive breakdown with the soles of his shoes slapping against the floor. The band stops on a dime, and Dunn let’s out a spirited, ‘“Whew!’”

There are creative differences among the three members of Swamp Boat to be sure, but they came together in the spirit of the jam. The band finds itself at an undecided juncture. Wells leaves for Argentina with his fiancée, a teacher who is part of Guilford County Schools’ international visiting faculty program. The bass player will meet his future in-laws before returning in January.

‘“We’re gonna take a fat break,’” Dunn says. ‘“You can say, Matt’s going to Argentina, Ian’s crazy busy, and Russ’ ambition is flaring. I’ve just got to get out and play.’”

Pawlowski, a retail manager by day, envisions the future of Swamp Boat somewhat differently.

‘“I want to learn the fiddle,’” he says. ‘“Most of the stuff I write is kind of slow. I want to find my creativity and make the band better.’”

They play an even more eclectic collection of songs in the second set, including Pawlowski’s heartfelt ‘“Carolina Song’” and the Radiohead cover, ‘“High and Dry.’”

Dunn has a habit of wandering into the audience as far as his cord will allow and playing directly for individual audience members. Later in the night, he’ll wander up behind his buddy Mark Braunwarth, a brewer at Natty Greene’s, and reel off a trill of notes. Braunwarth will lean back as if lost in reverie, and Dunn will head-butt him at the finale of the solo.

The performance becomes so frenetic that Pawlowski pops strings on his guitar.

‘“We’ve got to wrap it up because we broke three strings that I actually don’t have,’” he says. ‘“We need the young blond man to come to the stage,’” referring to the lyricist from Tre Stylez.

Pawlowski switches out his six-string for an acoustic bass as Michaud swaggers to the bandstand.

He launches into ‘“Un-American,’” furiously spitting lyrics about the fallen Twin Towers, Republican-Democrat fractiousness and corrupted political systems. It builds to Michaud’s emphatic declaration, ‘“Don’t call me un-American,’” and the members of Swamp Boat answer with a chant of, ‘“This is my world.’”

The jam segues into a rap about music itself, with Michaud delivering a bratty white-boy fusillade over the band’s throttling Outlaws-style instrumentation.

‘“Music is my life,’” Michaud declares. ‘“I’ll be doing this thing ’til I die.’”

As the song comes to an end, he implores the audience: ‘“They’ve been tearing the f*ck out of you all night. Come on, give it up for Swamp Boat.’”

The music settles down to the gentle caress of Dunn’s mandolin picking before Wells takes a turn on the microphone. But the show is basically over, and audience members are heading for the bar or pulling on their coats to go home.

Take care, Tre.

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