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Clip: The Working Poor

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  • Carl Zimring
    The Working Poor Growing Richer Writer: DAN ELDRIDGE Photographer: HEATHER MULL It s definitely Alan Lewandowski s
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2004
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      The Working Poor
      Growing Richer

      Writer: DAN ELDRIDGE

      Photographer: HEATHER MULL

      It's definitely Alan Lewandowski's voice that pulls your ear straight to
      the speaker -- sort of like a heavy magnet is drawn to metal -- when the
      first few bars of The Working Poor's third release, New Wealth, pop and
      sputter into life. The record starts with the sound of a train whistle,
      actually; stand-up-bass player Brian Richmond got the idea when a train
      blew past a friend's South Oakland apartment just after he'd hit "play" on
      an early test pressing. And it's fitting, too, because just like that very
      first track, and like the Working Poor themselves -- who spend their days
      as painters, filmmakers and laborers when they aren't making music -- New
      Wealth is a quirky, triumphant example of what the Velvet Underground liked
      to call "urban folk music."

      But back to Lewandowski: Imagine a soft-spoken vocalist with a timeless
      Hank Williams twang and a folksy, subtle sense of innocence, and you'll
      start to get the idea. The other four band members seem to naturally wrap
      their instruments and their voices around his at every turn, especially on
      instant Americana classics like "Upstart Organ" and "Figurine," where
      vocalist and sometime-guitarist Lee Smookler's resonant bass lyrics spar
      with Lewandowski's high notes in a sort of contest -- perfectly matched --
      where a lazy 4/4 beat and Richmond's rumbling acoustic bass round out the

      But probably the most impressive attribute of New Wealth is that according
      to Lewandowski, the record's pastoral-Americana sound was really nothing
      more than an experiment. "We've had a lot of phases," he explained during a
      recent interview at a Lawrenceville bar. "When we first started out, it was
      a three-piece. We had a drummer, [current Johnsons Big Band vocalist] Terry
      Carroll, and Brian [Richmond] played the bass. It was very sparse. More of
      a minimalist style."

      And although no one in the group can seem to agree on exactly what the
      band's sound is -- Lewandowski says it's New Urban American, Smookler
      disagrees, and then Lewandowski counters that the idea, after all, was just
      to start a good punk band -- they all agree on their influences.
      "Definitely the Carter Family," someone says. They also mention the
      Handsome Family (no surprise there), and a random assemblage of '30s music.

      But the Working Poor's most unique element is definitely its inimitable
      live show, which falls somewhere between that of a European busking band
      and a random group of friends who just happened to meet together on a
      street corner to sing a couple of songs. That's not surprising, perhaps,
      when you consider the group's history: Richmond (who, by the way, is a
      nationally renowned experimental filmmaker) once played with the Feral
      Family, who were known to frequently set up shop on Shadyside street
      corners. And Lewandowski and Smookler even tried their luck as sidewalk
      singers during a vacation in New Orleans. "Actually, I'm going to Barcelona
      in two weeks," Lewandowski says, "and I hope to pay for my trip [by
      busking]. Or my dinners. I'm going to play Hank Williams and Leadbelly, and
      see if they go for that."

      If they do, they won't be the first. The Working Poor have had a small but
      intense following in Pittsburgh for going on five years now, thanks in no
      small part to the Rickety Records collective they've been a part of from
      the beginning. "We just like to play," says Lewandowski, before finishing
      his drink and heading back home for band practice. "It's our drug of
      choice, and Pittsburgh's a great place to perform, and this is where our
      friends are. That's why we're here."

      The Working Poor play a CD-release party with guests The Johnsons Big Band
      at 10 p.m. Sat., Jan. 31, at Gooski's, Polish Hill. 412-681-1658.
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