The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra Rides into Wheeling’s Heritage Port

By Ian Beabout, Online Editor

Great music has always been my passion in life, ever since I saw my first concert (Jethro Tull) at age three and decided to spend all my money on it at age nine! Usually, I have to travel to Pittsburgh to see a good progressive rock band, or just about anywhere else in the world – I’ve followed bands to Baltimore, to Bethlehem, PA, Charleston, WV, New York City, and North Carolina to name a few. In recent years I’ve even contemplated traveling to France to see bands that just never, ever come here.

It is a rare treat to see a band of Galactic Cowboy Orchestra‘s caliber and variety locally. And for free, you say? Yes please! I should tell you that I’m not exactly an impartial reviewer – I first saw Minnesota’s Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (GCO to us cool kids) at the legendary ProgDay Festival in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and they blew me away.

I’ve since become friends with the band and suggested them to my friend, Tim Birch, Waterfront Wednesday coordinator. I’ve even had vocalist / violinist Lisi Wright on my radio program, which you can stream here (she’s on at about 47 minutes in).

To me, progressive music has always been a fusion music. Any time you combine other genres with rock and add a hyphen, what else can you call it? Progressive rock. The GCO play a mutant blend of bluegrass, jazz fusion, and rock. They call it ‘jazz-grass art-rock’. Who am I to argue?

So how did the GCO fare at Waterfront Wednesday? Let me tell you, they put on an amazing show. Led by virtuosic bassist John Wright (Lisi’s husband), the band effortlessly stormed their way through bluegrass finger-busters, uneven time signatures, and hard rockers.

We got some Indian raga, too, with a track from their 2009 debut, Lookin’ for a Little Strange, entitled “Raga Piloo”, as well as a pure progressive / fusion number from 2014’s Zombie Mouth, “Galacticity” with enough mutating time signatures to have this prog rock nerd scooping his jaw off the pavement.

They even managed to throw in a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, a tribute to our unusually wet summer, with a lyrical refrain of “if it keeps on raining, the levee’s gonna break”. Topical! Speaking of the weather, it was an unusually gorgeous summer night with temperatures at about 65-70 degrees. “The good weather follows us around,” quipped Mr. Wright.

I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing dexterity of guitarist Dan Neale. Neale played at least three different guitars over the course of the evening – electric, acoustic, and a third with a slide tuning for ” Going Nowhere Fast”, a purely classic country tune that fit right into the evening’s genre-hopping crossover set.

He also played a couple of solo acoustic numbers, one of which – “Straight to the Top” was pure Chet Atkins or even Richard Thompson. Amazing. Also, new guy Alec Tackmann effortlessly fit in the drum stool left vacant by founding member Mark O’Day, commenting to me after show on the “cerebral” nature of the music.

Perhaps the best part of the night for me was actually getting the chance to sit in on flute with the band for a piece, The Allman Brothers’ classic blues jam, “Whipping Post”. I had never played the piece before, but Lisi messaged me on Facebook about an hour before I left for the gig, asking me to fill in! I said “yes”, before I even had a chance to think. How could I not?

When John called me up to the stage, I excitedly took my spot behind his vocal mike. “We’ll cue your solo,” Lisi said. So, while navigating through some riffs I’d never played and trying my best not to ‘step on’ the other musicians, I did my best to add to the amazing sounds emanating from around me.

Then, after a burning electric guitar solo from Dan Neale, followed by an incredible fuzz bass solo from John, it was my turn. Man, I just tapped into the adrenaline, moved my fingers and blew! What an exhilarating experience that was – trading blues licks with a smiling Lisi on violin and watching the band’s reaction to my improvisations. Everyone in the band was complimentary and I even received some handshakes and congratulatory words from audience members.

After the show, I helped the band load in, shook hands, gave and received hugs and “see you next time”-s. What an amazing night!

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