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Down That Dusty Road

Merit Parcel’s alternative folk-rock recalls rambling greats of old

Merit Parcel has the prickliness of Bob Dylan, the dusty dignity of the Band, and the looseness of the Traveling Wilbur's. Photo credit: Facebook

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Ithink a lot about two particular bands, the qualities they share and the different ways in which these qualities are portrayed -- in one corner, we have the Band, and in the other, we have the Traveling Wilburys. The Band, of course, started out as Bob Dylan's backing band, before striking out on their own to become one of the most celebrated groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Their scruffy, lived-in folk-rock painted a picture of the blue-collar everyman, traveling dusty roads and shacking up in secluded cabins. As depicted in The Last Waltz, the classic concert film that captured their farewell performance, this narrative wasn't too far removed from the truth, with a couple caveats: the cabin was where they'd go to dry out and record music, and the road was where they lived and performed, until they collapsed, exhausted and defeated, and ready for the ride to end.

The Traveling Wilburys, meanwhile, donned suede dusters and cowboy hats, and created an album of great songs, that were nonetheless more tossed-off larks than actual statements from the heart or hard-fought experience. A textbook supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys consisted of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne -- all legendary musicians, to be sure, but all of whom had either long ago stopped workhorse touring, or had never known that kind of life to begin with. To look at any promotional photo or music video of the Traveling Wilburys riding the rails with their trusty guitars and a smile is to see an idealized caricature of the kind of life that the Band says nearly killed them. If the Band was the smoke-stained reality, the Traveling Wilburys were the folktale that had been embellished with the rosy haze of memory.

I hear elements of both the Band and the Traveling Wilburys in Merit Parcel, an alternative folk act out of Hayfork, California. The disillusionment that emanated from the Band -- and the general cynicism of Dylan -- is felt in Merit Parcel's frequently arid, prickly tones. Meanwhile, there's a little bit of the Traveling Wilburys' playful, carefree blending of styles, a sort of willingness to throw things at the wall to see what sticks. While the elements of folk-rock are at the core of Merit Parcel's output, you sometimes get a curveball, like the jumped-up boogie of "Snake," from the group's debut LP Missed the Band Wagon. Working off lockstep groove that's almost reminiscent of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," "Snake" gets this close to diving full-on into the deep waters of funk.

Missed the Band Wagon came out at the end of 2016, and at the time, Merit Parcel was still just a solo project of musician Shawn Hill. The album is full of lush instrumentation, though, so the notion of making Merit Parcel a fully realized band meant recruiting a number of artists to replicate that sound. In the time since that debut, the band has filled out with Loren O'Brien on bass, Ron Baca Jr. on guitar, Taylor Aglipay on saxophone and keys, and James Johansing on drums. The tightness of the band is essential, as it vitally gives something for Hill to play off of; his nasal, Dylan-esque vocals are suitably unpolished, and his looseness of delivery can only function so well with a band that can stay in the pocket for the most part, and embellish when it counts. 

Merit Parcel's penchant for verbose, evocative storytelling echoes that of the Band and the Traveling Wilburys, but there's an energy and cautious optimism to Merit Parcel that has yet to be weathered by the road, so these stories still feel like fictions. With the band's second album, Out for Delivery, coming soon, we'll see how these stories will age.

MERIT PARCEL, 10 p.m., Sunday, June 10, Le Voyeur, 404 4th Ave. E., Olympia, cover TBA, 360.943.5710,

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