What are the roots of a roots music band? In the case of Poor Man’s Whiskey, admits cofounder and guitar-mandolin player Jason Beard, the core members started off as “a winery/wedding band, so we ended up having to do a lot of covers, old traditional rock and roll tunes, but we would make them bluegrass. We always called that ‘whiskefying’ things.”
Fast-forward a few years, and the hard-working “high-octane hootenanny” band applied their old approach to even older material, crafting their string-jam makeover of Pink Floyd’s most iconic record. Dark Side of the Moonshine earned Poor Man’s Whiskey considerable acclaim, but this year, the Santa Rosa–based band was ready to tackle something new.
“So for a kick,” Beard relates, instead of taking a rock album “and making it bluegrass, we thought we’d take a fairly influential album on us, Old & in the Way, and whiskefy that.”
Old & in the Way (both the group and their lone, eponymous album) was not rock and roll, but as close to true, traditional bluegrass as a band of Bay Area hippies—one that included David Grisman, Jerry Garcia and Peter Rowan—could get.
Rather than a full-album
re-creation this time, Poor Man’s Whiskey has concentrated on “a good handful” of their favorite tracks, “but we definitely infused our own energy, doing what we do,” Beard asserts.
“‘Cactus John’ got a pretty big makeover that becomes a big rock jam. ‘Hobo Song’ also becomes a much more electric rock tune,” he continues. “‘Pig in Pen’ we still do acoustic and bluegrass, but we’re much more of an old-timey slant on bluegrass, in that we drive a lot of rhythms.”
Whiskey debuted their customized tribute in a sold-out date at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, one that came with a twist—they were joined at the show by Peter Rowan himself. But when the originator arrived to rehearse a few days before the show, “we already had all the songs arranged how we do them,” recalls Jason, “and Peter would start playing, and we’d have to say, ‘No, we’re gonna play ’em like this.’ But it worked well and we had a really great time.”
Poor Man’s Whiskey plans to retire the Old & in the Way material after a final pair of NorCal shows this weekend, but they’re already planning further whiskefications. A February date at the Sebastopol Community Center will find the band stretching out in a full night of Allman Brothers material, and Beard hints, without being specific, that 2015 will see them cover and adapt another iconic album from a very different artist.
Poor Man’s Whiskey play Friday, Dec. 6, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8:30pm. $18. 707.762.3565.