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Monday, Jan. 5, 2009

.357 String Band’s Punk-Rock Hootenannies

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The .357 String Band has come a long way from playing on street corners and basement shows since they formed four years ago. They've recorded two albums, 2006's Ghost Town and last year's Fire & Hail. They've also toured both coasts and gone on three European tours, taking their high-octane acoustic act as far as Serbia.

The String Band is where new meets old. It is cowboy hats and nose rings, a hootenanny with a mosh pit. The songs play like bluegrass with elements of folk and country, along with a big heap of punk rock. It's also filled with mythology and religion. "Up Jumped the Devil," for example, sounds like a song that a moonshine-drinking, fire-and-brimstone-spitting Southern preacher might use to scare the spirit into his congregation.

The members of the four-piece band-Jayke Orvis on mandolin, Joe Huber on banjo, Derek Dunn on guitar and Rick Ness on stand-up bass-all sing. There is no percussion, but audience members often help out by stomping and clapping along. The band members were formerly in a variety of punk and rockabilly groups. They present an energetic set, climbing onto Ness' bass while he's playing, dancing and yelling through a megaphone.

Dunn spoke about the band's latest tour of Europe, which they recently returned from. It seems fitting that Dunn has the word "REST LESS" tattooed across his knuckles.

"I think we've gotten an easier reception over there than we have here," he says. "The fan base was easier to find; we've had to put more work into finding one here."

Dunn adds that touring always produces some crazy moments. On this tour they lost their mandolin player briefly in Belgium, and the Serbian army tried to tow their van. They played a gig at a rodeo in Italy, which seemed like the set of a spaghetti Western.

"We were walking around the rodeo at one point, and we noticed Confederate flags on all this stuff," Dunn recalls. "All these people were dressed up as cowboys, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats, and American-flag Western shirts. We were like, 'What could the American South possibly mean to someone in northern Italy?' But we came to the conclusion that it means country music to them. It's all a symbol for that."

Dunn is talking about tour highlights when banjoist Huber calls.

"Hey, what's up, did you get anywhere?" Dunn asks as he answers the phone. Huber's call is an update on the band's luggage, which was lost in transit from Spain. It supposedly was sent to Milwaukee, and Huber has been trying to locate it. Dunn gets off the phone, frustrated. "It's disappeared into a black hole," he says, adding that the missing luggage contains most of his equipment.

Despite the overseas adventures, Dunn says the band's hometown of Milwaukee is where they land their best gigs.

"It's hands down our favorite place to play," he says. "We look forward to playing here more than anywhere else in the world. We have our biggest fan base and the best crowds here."

The band's 8 p.m. Jan. 10 show at the Turner Hall Ballroom will be a homecoming of sorts, the first time they've played locally in six months. Opening will be the Black Diamond Heavies, a gritty blues duo from Tennessee that the band met at a festival in Holland. Also on the bill is wild man Joe Buck Yourself, a one-man band who has played with the Legendary Shack Shakers and Hank Williams III's band.