Austin Vanasdale's folk influences are as plain as the handlebar moustache on his face. While his entrée into alt-folk music came through interest in contemporary bands — The Decemberists, for example — the sounds that color his work with The Armadillos are more classic. Bandmate Matt Rychorcewicz is quick to point to the Kingston Trio as Vanasdale's major influence, and Vanasdale doesn't disagree.
What is somewhat unconventional about the four-piece, though, is its instrumentation. Vanasdale plays guitar, and Rychorcewicz mandolin; simple enough so far. (Rychorcewicz picked up mandolin because he happened to find a free one.) Josh Dukes, the band's most recent addition and a veteran of punk and rockabilly bands like Supercharged Suicide, plays a stand-up bass. And Sheila Liming? She chimes in with ... an accordion.
"I answered their Craigslist ad, and they were looking for a singer and fiddle player," she recalls. "And I called them and said, ‘I don't play fiddle, but ...'"
There's no drummer, and the band doesn't require amplification, which lets it play everything from rock clubs like Thunderbird Café to a parking lot in Polish Hill during a community festival. Its music is high-energy — it didn't take a lot of adjustment for Dukes to move to Armadillos-style folk after the punk bands he'd been in — but not abrasive. (Making a set completely family-friendly requires only minor changes to the lyrics, Liming notes: "Take out a few ‘bastards' and we're good!")
The four-piece set-up, with Liming on accordion, vocals and tin whistle, solidified in early 2009, and in 2010 the band released its self-titled debut full-length. Dukes joined earlier this year after the departure of former bassist Chuck Shreve, and now The Armadillos are working on a follow-up release. In the meantime, the band has been touring a bit and playing locally on a regular basis, including a monthly appointment at the Park House, on the North Side. (Rychorcewicz is a cook at the Monterey Pub; the band practices in his apartment upstairs from the bar.)
The band's members come from starkly different backgrounds — day jobs range from apartment maintenance man to English professor — but their approach to music is based on a common denominator: old-fashioned fun. They don't just sing about whiskey; they're pretty adept at throwing it back, too. And while they take on an old-style aesthetic, they avoid the painstaking pretentiousness of steampunkish re-creationists. Instead, they identify with a certain camp of folk revivalists like Holy Ghost Tent Revival, O'Death, Shotgun Party and Jayke Orvis: acts that are retro but not to the point of shtick, and that concentrate on good songwriting.
To what do The Armadillos attribute their popularity with City Paper readers?
"Playing a whole lot," Vanasdale says.
"And dancing," adds Liming. "A lot of people come to our shows just to dance!"