‘Split Lip’ not traditional, ordinary bluegrass band

Few bands have the power to instill genuine fear of what's to come in an audience, and even fewer can do it before playing a single note.

When the members of Split Lip Rayfield first strode on stage ahead of breakneck-paced rockabilly powerhouse Reverend Horton Heat at Shank Hall in December, many of the Rev's fans left slack-jawed by what they saw.

That's because the Kansas-based quartet always comes out raring to go with four instruments that don't typically make for a good rock concert — a mandolin, a banjo, an acoustic guitar and "The Stitchgiver," a Frankenstein's monster of a bass fashioned from a 1970s model Ford gas tank.

The punk-grass outlaws of Split Lip have dealt with incredulous first-glances for years, but Eric Mardis, the band's banjo player, said he revels in the opportunity to turn people's initial reactions upside-down.

"I would say the first impression is dread — 'Oh God, here come these guys with bluegrass instruments,'" Mardis said. "But generally that (reaction) gets turned around within two or three songs. It's the same reaction I would have if people came out and started pulling banjos and gas tanks out of cases — 'Oh God, this is gonna be terrible.' But I sort of enjoy that, making 400 conversions all at once."

They play bluegrass instruments, but the members of Split Lip Rayfield, returning Wednesday to Shank, won't ever be mistaken for "O Brother, Where Art Thou"-style bluegrass traditionalists once they begin pluckin' away. Kirk Rundstrom shreds his acoustic guitar with so much fervor it's easy to think he's got an amp tucked away somewhere on stage, while Mardis and mandolin player Wayne Gottstine showcase their chops at an equally torrential pace.

Then there's Jeff Eaton tearing into his "Stitchgiver," which would leave an average man's hands bruised and bloodied after 10 minutes of plucking and beating with Eaton's intensity.

All that, coupled with the band's often-dark, humorous lyrics — which feature gruesome murders, bank robberies and pickup trucks — make it clear these guys don't share much in common with the likes of Alison Krauss & Union Station.

Split Lip, touring on the heels of its fourth release, "Should Have Seen It Coming," has earned itself plenty of attention with its half-crazed approach. Experienced live, the band has the power to turn those slack-jawed looks of disbelief into looks of gape-mouthed astonishment.

Mardis said the band has faced the problem of being added to bills with traditional bluegrass bands by promoters. However, Split Lip prefers to play to an eclectic fan base, he said.

"We would rather mix it up … and have that reaction of 'Uh oh' go to 'F— yeah,'" he said. "That's a good feeling.'"

Despite Split Lip Rayfield's initially surprising style, Mardis said the music still manages to strike a chord with almost every audience they encounter.

"As barebones as it is — with no drums and no effects, no ambience of any kind — to get up there and hack and slash and connect with the audience it must be because of the energy and its (music's) honesty."

The band, which has been doing things its own way since its members first jammed together at a Kansas bluegrass festival in 1998, stays true to itself despite the protests of the trad-grass establishment. Mardis, who cited Deep Purple and Iron Maiden as childhood influences, said those doubters don't bother the band because they've never aimed to achieve bluegrass-world success.

"If you're going to be a bluegrass banjo player in they're eyes, there' s this whole canon of bluegrass you're supposed to emulate," he said. "That's what they want and the fact that we don't do it bothers them.

"We don't really worry about it. We've got enough mutt, odd-mix fans that we can survive without the traditional establishment."

Split Lip Rayfield plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell Ave. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 3 2005.