Pedal to the Steel

How good is Jon Rauhouse? He's bringing one of our writers out of her self-imposed exile from Club Crawl®

Make of it what you will: For all these years, I have avoided Club Crawl®.

It's because of Jon Rauhouse that on Oct. 16, I will end what might otherwise have been an unblemished, lifelong record. To see him, I will scale walls and drop to the ground ankle-deep in beer, surrounded by lurching, neophyte revelers.

That's what Club Crawl® is like, right?

But what can we expect from the show?

"Just complete fun!" Rauhouse says. "I think there will be some new songs in there, and Rachel (Flotard of Visqueen) will be singing. Her banter surprises everyone, and she's hysterical."

We have more than Club Crawl® to thank for Rauhouse's Tucson visit; he also has booked a session at Wavelab Studio. Snippets of time between his tours with Neko Case, Billy Bob Thornton and Jakob Dylan have allowed him to pursue a thoughtful evolution in his songwriting. (He has been waiting to record until his drummer could take a break from composing theatrical scores in Chicago.)

Banjo, guitar, lap steel and (mostly) uncharted soundscapes and emotional resonances on pedal steel (he answers to the nickname "Orchid Fingers") have been Rauhouse's stock in trade. He's long been the go-to multi-instrumentalist for a class of rock and country-rock artists who care more deeply than most about the quality of their bands' musicianship. Over the last decade and a half, he has released four albums of his own—mostly instrumental, mostly covers—and performed on about 40 others.

Lately, though, he's grown much more interested in lyrics and vocals. He's been co-writing with Flotard, and he will sing a little on the new record.

"I'm slowly evolving to where it's more writing and working on lyrics. The music is more jazz-oriented, but I think of jazz as Louis Armstrong. I like melodies. I'm thinking more about lyrics now than instrumentals."

It hasn't been easy to find time to compose new music and get his band ready to record. "I've been really busy the last three or four years," Rauhouse says. "I worked with The Boxmasters (Billy Bob Thornton's band), which was lots of fun. We played some crazy fun dates with ZZ Top and did a big tour opening up for Willie Nelson. Everything ended up fitting in around what I was doing with Neko."

Rauhouse is a regular member of Case's band.

After Case's tour for her 2009 Middle Cyclone, she was headed out on tour with Jakob Dylan behind his 2010 album, Women and Country, for which she and Kelly Hogan had provided backing vocals. Rauhouse says Dylan needed a band for the tour, and Case suggested that he take hers. "Those sessions (for Women and Country) had drums, bass, guitar and pedal steel," Rauhouse says, "so it was a perfect fit."

After that tour, Rauhouse got the break he needed—and, more importantly, so did his band members.

"I don't play as much as I want to," he says about performing with his band, "because it's really hard to get everyone together." His band includes, besides Flotard, pianist Jeff Livingston, bassist Will Lovell and, on guitar, Tommy Connor, a fellow member of Rauhouse's first band.

Drummer and composer Kevin O'Donnell has the trickiest schedule. O'Donnell was just out of college and performing with classmate Andrew Bird's first band when Rauhouse met him. "He blew me away," says Rauhouse regarding O'Donnell's atomic precision on drums. O'Donnell loves to swing, a skill for which modern pop offers few opportunities.

"I think that's why people come see us," Rauhouse says. "There have been a lot of bands out there who don't really know how to play. I like those, too, bands like the Old 97's. But I think the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. More people, musicians, now want to be concerned with their craft.

"That's why I put together this band," Rauhouse says of their updated band, with sound influences including Santo and Johnny, Les Paul and big bands. "Playing with this band is like driving a Ferrari."

Jon Rauhouse, featuring Rachel Flotard, plays at 9:30 p.m. at Club Congress.