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New Groove

Published: 2003/08/29
by Benjy Eisen

The Ordinary Way

Even though The Ordinary Way took their moniker from a street sign, there is still a reasonable amount of irony to their name. They don’t play music that’s straight-down-the-middle and their musical chops are surely above average. Although, in some ways perhaps, The Ordinary Way is an ordinary jamband. That is to say that they play, you know, the usual funk-folk-reggae-jazz-dance-jam-rock, they improvise liberally live, and they have a Grateful Dead-like sense of family (so much so that even ex-members of the band are still considered a part of the team). But beyond the typical genre-hopping, the obligatory jamming, and the common spiritual references, The Ordinary Way are creating a patchwork of music that’s quite entertaining and, while closely related to many of their jamband peers, strong enough to land the band the title of New Groove of the Month.

"We aren’t trying to fit into any genre," insists singer/guitarist Gordon Sterling. "We’re just trying to do our thing." By that he means The Ordinary Way employ the styles and fashions of a number of distant-cousin genres and unite them with a rolling seven-piece ensemble. It keeps things interesting but it’s also a bit deceiving. Listen to one track and, depending on which one you listen to, you could prematurely categorize The Ordinary Way as a roots-rock band, a reggae band, a Deadhead band, or a funk band. Rather than blend the styles, they tend to hopscotch from one to the other, usually at a song’s length, and to the group’s credit they do a convincing job. But beneath the slippery surface there’s still a foundational fingerprint; an underlying sound that they carry with them from song to song and from jam to jam. Male-female dual vocals, acoustic guitar and mandolin, percussion, and the near constant threat of world-beat are present regardless of the territory. In other words, even when they play reggae, they’re playing Ordinary Way reggae. Et cetera.

Undoubtedly, location plays a big part in their sound. Hailing from the haystack state of Virginia, The Ordinary Way built their chops on a scene dominated by roots-rock, in a region that Dave Matthews, Tim Reynolds, and Cracker’s David Lowery call home. It is the southernmost reach of Walther Productions territory, where festivals are called things like "All Good" and grassroots gatherings are punctuated by at least a few men in overalls. It is where the plantation South meets the populous North. The music is an authentic fusion, a result of geography as much as lineage, and this simple sincerity comes through in The Ordinary Way’s style and substance.

"Virginia bands tend to be pretty tight with each other," Sterling admits, adding, "We take a lot of different vibes and sounds to make our own."

And indeed, The Ordinary Way’s national debut, Dojo (released this year by BOS Music) backs this up. The opening track, "Wake to the Sun," is a Recipe-worthy slice of Appalachia, complete with Sterling’s bearded vocals and a back-porch swing. The next few tracks follow logically with acoustic-electric folk-rock. But put your CD player on random and it may land on the reggae get-up of "Come Alive," which turns into a jammy-jam, then an engaging trance-lite jam. The track eventually segues into "The Journey Home." And THAT track slithers from a mellow start to a rollicking peak before curiously fading-out. The next track, "In This Life," is a spoken-word diversion care of singer Fabienne Gustave and framed by an apparent neo-beatnik jazz band.

Dojo is lifted, spiritually and emotionally, by Gustave’s ethereal voice, which provides an extremely pleasant counterpoint to Sterling’s gruff vocals. In fact, more than their eclecticism or jamming ability, Gustave’s vocals are the ace in the band’s hand. Whether leading the band through a cover of "Franklin’s Tower" or engaging Sterling in a duet for one of their originals, Gustave is a joy to listen to.

And yet, despite her obvious star power, she remains entrenched as an equal part of a seven-member ensemble. It is an ensemble that has changed drastically, personnel-wise, since Sterling formed the band with bassist Chris Stringfellow in 1996.

Keyboardist Jessie Hooper, whose explanation of the band’s line-up evolution could take up an entire article in itself, joined in 1999, around the time that The Ordinary Way was transforming from what Sterling describes as a "garage band" into a full-time professional endeavor.

Hooper places 1999 the year he, percussionist Ryan Leonardo, drummer Robin Boldt, and manager Greg Keyser came on board as the year that he decided The Ordinary Way was worth dropping out of college for.

"I realized right from the start that we had a chance to turn the band into a success," he says. "It was just a matter of how hard we wanted to push…I had to work, so it was a battle between school and the band. Music had become the only consistently positive force in my life, and the vibe I had with the other members of The Ordinary Way was too good to pass up so I quit school…and put all my energy into the band."

His dedication is reflective of the band’s spirit as a whole. Sterling comments, "All seven of us are committed to always moving forward in our music, always making a connection with our fans, and each other."

And, he continues, the band has added purpose after dedicating the better part of a decade to the project: "A few of us, myself included, now have children. It is impossible for us to tour without a care in the world anymore. So, I’d have to say that our vision is being able to support our families and still do what we love doing."

Given the initial success of Dojo, the support of a record label, and an expanding regional fan base, The Ordinary Way finally has a shot at the success that each of them insist they deserve.

"Having seven people in a band is extremely challenging," Sterling admits. "[But] if something means enough to you, you deal with it and make it work. And this does."

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