When the roots-music quartet Acoustics Anonymous rechristened itself as the Mighty Pines in 2016, it signaled more than just a step away from a slightly hokey band name. The rebranding gave the group a chance to position itself as a serious touring outfit, according to mandolin player Gerard Erker, who also shares singing and songwriting duties with his band mates.
"When we started we were a four-piece without a drummer, playing in bars and having fun, joking around," says Erker. "All of a sudden we were getting traction — we added a drummer and went on tour."
The band's ascendency through the city's often-fluid roots-and-groove scene led to more frequent trips out of town – and suddenly Acoustics Anonymous was being asked to live up to its name. "From a business standpoint we weren't a 100 percent acoustic band," Erker continues, "and when we reach out to markets across the country we wanted a more solid, professional name. And it actually has proven to do exactly that; we've gotten better response on cold calls."
Acoustics Anonymous put out a full-length called Honest & Wild three years ago, complete with four-part harmonies, bluegrass-inspired riffs and an easy-going comfort within broad folk, roots and rock traditions. As the Mighty Pines, the band members continue to burrow in a few different directions while circling around deft musicianship and the bonhomie of shared vocals. The five-song EP Blissful Visions was released in the middle of last year, and it serves as a succinct re-introduction to the group (which, on this recording, includes bassist John Hussung, guitarists Neil Salsich and Drew Jameson and drummer Mike Murano alongside Erker).
Blissful Visions lives up to its peaceful, easy title often enough, but each songwriter finds a distinct foothold into the band's collective sound. Erker's "Snow Falls Down" tells of a bloody love triangle in a turgid, murder-ballad shuffle, striking a balance somewhere between the Fleet Foxes and the Devil Makes Three. Jameson's title track is a mellow slice of strummy beach-folk with lyrics of wanderlust; Salsich's "Eastern Heart, Western Soul" takes some of that same existential grist but turns out an affecting soul-ballad, albeit one wrapped in the plucks of a banjo. The song serves as the centerpiece of this brief set and the best evidence of the depth of feeling the Mighty Pines are able to conjure.
The EP opens with the syncopated grooves of "Drivin'," a tune that could easily be reworked as a Southern funk workout if you swapped the mandolin for a Clavinet. Erker composed the song after one of the band's interstate trips. "That song, 'Drivin',' I wrote that and that's pretty much explicitly about tour life," Erker says. "It's kind of about the paranoia of driving — one of the lines is 'if you look down you might wind up dead.' You spend a lot of hard hours driving at night to get to a gig. You've got precious cargo — all of your bandmates and all of your gear."
The roster of states that get name-checked in the lyrics — Colorado, Massachusetts, Vermont — aren't purely aspirational destinations; since quitting their jobs to focus on the Mighty Pines full-time, the members regularly pack up the van and head out for a few weeks at a time.
Different regions yield different fan reactions. "In Colorado there are a lot of hippies and they seem to dig the jam-band side of it," says Erker. "In the Northeast they like that we're almost a boutique bluegrass band from the Midwest. In the Southern area they like a lot of mountain music, and there is a genuine appreciation for those good harmonies and mandolins and banjos. Every spot we've been to appreciates it for different reasons; they even dance differently to it."
While the winter months are a traditional touring break for most bands, the Mighty Pines has spent the past few weeks honing its craft in a weekly residency at Venice Café on Wednesday nights. The gigs (which end on Wednesday, February 15) have also given the band a chance to recalibrate after a lineup change: Drew Jameson and the rest of the band had what Erker calls "a mutual parting of ways" a few months back (Erker still contributes to Jameson's main project, Grass Fed Mule).
Those Venice Café gigs have also served as a public woodshed as the Mighty Pines prepare to record another album at the end of this month, a full-length at Wil Reeves' Centro Cellar Studio in Columbia, Missouri.
"It was a good way to reconnect with our local community and almost rebuild your fan base or community," he says. "It gives us a chance to tighten the screws on these new songs before we go into the studio. We just want to become as tight a band as possible, and one of the only ways to do that is to play together all the time."
Stream the new EP in full below: