When word dropped that Cornmeal was finally getting around to that new album, fans took it with several grains of salt. Due to any number of personal obstacles and challenges, the impending studio cut was subjected to false starts over the years. Who knew when it would really happen?
Last year — finally, indeed — the band dropped Slow Street, their first studio album in nearly 10 years. Most of the material had originated among a previous lineup, leaving the newly assembled Cornmeal to brush off the dust and kick these songs up a notch. Fans were thrilled.
“The time between studio albums was a long time for the band,” guitarist and singer Scott Tipping says. “And I think the thing that’s interesting is that once we got Slow Street out, we were promoting a lot of the new songs, but in that process a bunch of new songs came out and they’re kind of becoming staples at the shows.”
Tipping says that the band is already gathering plans to return to the studio for the next album. This time around, it shouldn’t take as long.
To understand why the band is feeling more confident than ever, we need to rewind the tape a bit and chart the Cornmeal musical trajectory.
The early- to mid-2000s saw this Chicago-based bluegrass outfit rising steadily in stature among college radio and regional and national festivals (Telluride Bluegrass, Wakarusa, etc.). Their tight, practiced sound always blended the historical legacy of gin-yoo-wine bluegrass and with the contemporary jam band ethos. Every show was unique. Every show was an opportunity to build a new world.
One world was the band’s annual Holiday Ramble. They’d bring guests along for sit-ins and everybody would throw down some deliriously fun jamming. Tipping, who used to play in another band and who essentially grew up alongside Cornmeal, joined them for some Ramble action.
Around this time — late 2012 and 2013 — Cornmeal was dealing with the departures of their founding guitarist and drummer. After a round of auditions, it was clear that Tipping was connecting well with the band’s anchor members. There was also the matter of filling the permanent fiddle position, which went to Phillip Roach. From there, Cornmeal, in rebuilding mode, began playing more and more shows.
“I feel like we had a natural chemistry, but, you know, tour dates develop that,” Tipping says. “Even when you have something that’s kind of cool and natural, you gotta take it out on the road.”
With time came the sense and certainty that the band would rise from this fleeting nadir.
The band had accrued a number of songs from earlier — back when all the founders were together. With the new lineup in tow, they began hauling out the old stuff and revamping it for the studio. After years of misfires on this one, Slow Street came out in 2015.
“I think there’s something that, when the album came out, solidified to the public that everything was back in place and ready to go,” Tipping says. “It also really showcases a lot of the genre-bending that Cornmeal is known for doing.”
As a product of the studio, Slow Street certainly sums up the Cornmeal experience quite well. It’s a different album than its predecessors, and the new guys’ fingerprints are all over it. Tipping, in particular, shines as lead singer throughout the piece.
The new tunes — and the tunes they’ve written together in the past year — also keep a foot in the door for plenty of open-ended improvisation onstage. The band takes advatage of that constantly.
“I notice that a lot of what Cornmeal does is based off of jamming, so when we’re on the road a lot you have to keep it fresh every night,” Tipping says. “One of the things that I really love about every musician in the band is everybody’s always listening and reacting. There’s no phoning it in. I guess the thing that I enjoy about it is every night is a new experience.”
For instance, a live take on “All Things Must Change,” recorded as part of the Second Story Garage video series, landed on Youtube last year. It’s a great rendition, demonstrating a number of very important elements that go into this band’s jamming style.
The song, which appears on Slow Street, begins with a gently loping rhythm — Tipping’s chords brushing in between an unforgettable riff as Wavy Dave Burlingame picks heartily on the banjo. After departing the foundational song structure, Burlingame leads the band into deeper waters as the other musicians steadily ride a crescendo into full-on jam territory. Tipping picks up the lead role and shreds his hollow-body into an extremely psychedelic frame.
At around 6:30 in the video the band shifts moods suddenly and descends into bluegrass noir. Roach slides his bow up and down the fiddle’s strings, swirling angsty blues into a frenzy and leading the band — once again — back into upbeat rock improv.
It’s a pretty solid beast — four movements in about 15 minutes — and it gets right to the heart of what these guys do best.
“As a result of that [jamming technique], it just naturally makes you a better player,” Tipping says. “As a soloist you’re constantly trying to push boundaries and have the musicians act in a different way, which hopefully the audience gets into.
“I don’t see how you couldn’t improve being a musician while being in this band, just because every night it’s 110 percent and every night it could go somewhere completely different, because this is what we live for.”