Okemah
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Okemah

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Music, politics of Woody Guthrie inspirations for roots-rock Okemah

PHILIP SCHWARTZ

Gazette Reporter

When Okemah vocalist and guitarist Damian Ubriaco sat down at a cafe in Alplaus late last month, talk immediately turned to Woody Guthrie, which is inevitable when your band is named after the folk legend's Oklahoma hometown. "Okemah is a very middle-American name," Ubriaco says, after going into detail on how the roots-rock quintet chose Okemah to signify their embrace of Guthrie's political and musical values.

Ubriaco, a high school English teacher in his mid-30s, dressed in a cowboy shirt and jeans, seems as comfortable talking about Cash and Nelson as he is Whitman and Steinbeck. So it comes across as a natural outpouring when he mentions Guthrie's dual nature, how he reflected both the progressive ideologies of the labor movement, say, and America's age-old agrarian values.

DELICATE BALANCE

From there, it's not hard to tie that to the similar idea on Okemah's Web site that states that the band has "one foot firmly planted in American roots music and the other in uncharted territory."

That's a delicate balance, Ubriaco says, because as a songwriter if you push one side too far, you can end up with a traditional pop song. And traditional pop songs aren't what Okemah is about.

By way of example, the sound on "40 Acres," the acoustic guitar-rich instrumental that opens a new EP, evokes its title with an undeniable pastoral feel. "First Time," despite its fun and catchy wah wah guitar, comes across as earthy and honest. "Back On The Ground" is yearning, almost anthemic. As the band touches on jazz here, the piano and organ add texture in this true roots-rock tune.

In its current incarnation, Okemah is a brand new band, having formed only last year and with only a few shows and that EP to its credit. But the Okemah's history stretches back a decade to a jam band called Free Beer & Chicken. Okemah's Ubriaco, Chris Sullivan (guitar), Kirk Juhas (keys), Sean Scanlon (drums) and Ken Juhas (bass) are former members of FB&C, which traces its roots to their high school days on Long Island.

As they headed in different directions for college, Free Beer & Chicken stayed together and built a solid following, primarily in upstate New York. But a few years ago, it looked as if the project had run its course.

"When Free Beer was coming to a close," Ubriaco said, "we were deciding to take a break. And as we were slowly putting things back together, we found ourselves rejuvenated. But these new influences were coming into play. We were writing on our own, and I think we realized our writing was taking a turn in a different direction. Right now, we're really working on writing well-crafted songs and getting the harmonies right."

NEED FOR CHANGE

And because the new music was so different, the name change, in the band's view, became a necessity.

With Okemah, there is less time spent on extended jams and more attention given to song structure. And while FB&C, in Ubriaco words, was strong working in several styles, it was no master of any single style. By contrast, he added, with Okemah, there's more focus. "We're going to give the audience more grounding in where the music is coming from and where it's going," he said. - The Daily Gazette Co.


Discography

Johnstown Flyer - 2008
Okemah - 2006

Spinning, Julie Jones, Mother and Father, What Went Wrong, & Back on the Ground have found airtime on local and college radio stations

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Bio

Okemah (O-KEE-MUH) N.
1. City in Oklahoma (pop. 3,085)
2. Home of Woody Guthrie
3. In the Kickapoo Language, means "Things up High"

Okemah is a Rock n’ Roll band in the grand tradition of American music. Following the line of their musical ancestors, Okemah has one foot firmly planted in American roots music and the other in unchartered territory. This combination has helped Okemah create a sound all their own which has been described as "Roots Infused Rock n’ Roll." Okemah’s unique sound relies as much upon the long friendship between its players as it is on American music.

The founding members of Okemah grew up together outside of NYC. During that time, they were introduced to the likes of of John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Woody Guthrie, and The Band. Inspired by these artists, they formed a band, and began writing songs to emulate the spirit of their musical heroes. Similar to Wilco, The Black Keys, and M. Ward, Okemah’s music pays respect to their roots while letting their music evolve naturally into a sound altogether new.

Okemah's music is truly at the crossroads of a lifelong friendship and the sincere desire to push the boundaries of American music while never losing its inherent spirit.