No-Brand Nudo

Inspired by Lost Member, Neoga Blacksmith Creates New Music

My wife and I enjoy watching The Voice on NBC and were disappointed when Allie Keck, a native of Neoga, Illinois, was recently sent packing. Her presence on the show reminded me that I once did a feature story for Smile Politely about a local band called Neoga Blacksmith, whose members, surprisingly, don’t hail from Neoga. They picked the name Neoga by “dropping a finger on a map,” according to another Smile Politely article. I’m assuming the state of Illinois was on that map when they did so.

Keck is now a successful real-estate agent and musician in Nashville who probably doesn’t want to return to her roots. Yet how cool would it be if she joined forces with the fantastic Neoga Blacksmith to give the band some serious oomph on vocals.

The piece I did on Neoga Blacksmith is below, slightly revised from its original form, for those who want to learn more about the band during a tough moment of its career.

Loss of longtime friend and piano-playing bandmate Kyle Usher inspires tuneful, reflective compositions on Chronontonius.

The nine-song Chronontonius by Neoga Blacksmith is a cohesively ordered gem, tuneful and natural with reflective, sometimes somber lyrics.

That somberness is fitting given that on October 13, 2016, the band’s longtime friend and piano-playing bandmate Kyle Usher died at the age of 35 of a heroin overdose.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a person whom Matt Wade, Brad Olson, Tony Ewald, and Theo Long had spent countless hours with for several years — playing music, sharing parts of themselves, laughing with, and having a few drinks — was gone. Usher’s death was a surprising tragedy, even to those close to him.

“We knew he had issues with his substance abuse in the past,” said Olson, a guitarist in the band who also sings on occasion. “We know he had gone into rehab. To all of our understandings, we thought he was in a much better place. So to receive that news was shocking. It was upsetting. Part of me felt like I’d been deceived, but it was also grieving and missing my friend a great deal.”

The musicianship of Usher lives on through the new album, where his playing is heard on roughly half the songs, according to Olson. When Olson hears the low-key, folksy tune “Drank Like a Fish,” which contains Usher’s keyboard work and lyrics that are about his deceased bandmate, he can’t help but be moved.

The album’s title was inspired by Usher, who as a child told his family he was an alien named Chronontonius from the planet Zadar. Olson said it’s a fitting remembrance of an “otherworldly talent” who loved science fiction and all things science. In hindsight, Usher’s made-up story from a young age may have been an indicator of his future personality.

The album’s title was inspired by Kyle Usher, who as a child told his family he was an alien named Chronontonius from the planet Zadar.

“I’ve heard other people describe it in ways, people who have struggled with depression or with substance abuse in whatever way often feel like they don’t fit in, like they don’t belong, and some have very explicitly said they felt like they were an alien from another planet,” Olson said.

Along with Olson, the nucleus of Neoga Blacksmith since the band’s inception in 2007 has included Wade, the primary singer who also contributes guitar, Ewald on bass, and Long playing drums. Usher joined Neoga by the time the band released its second album in 2012, Some Pig, and his contributions became integral. The spunky piano work on ditties such as “Chain it to the Truck” and on the Rolling Stones-like rocker “Hire the Pipers” has a fun-loving, honky-tonk air.

The pianist’s playing on the slower-burning Piasa from 2015 has subtler overtones that also enhance the music. Usher’s timing and talent made it seem as if he could sit down in the middle of any musical session with gifted artists and right away make his spontaneous presence felt, a viewpoint Olson verified.

“I’ve had friends who have said he’s got a Ray Manzerek kind of vibe to him, but I think he was a little bit looser than Manzerek. There was a little bit more improvisation involved, which I definitely think was something he was really strong at, just being able to riff,” Olson said.

Since Usher’s passing, the band’s good friends Tim McGee and Dave Pride have stepped in to assist on guitar and piano, respectively, with McGee contributing his work on Chronontonius.

The band has self-produced its last few albums and aims for a Neil Young & Crazy Horse tone. As for influences, Wade is into Beck and they all like Radiohead and some of the popular Seattle bands of the 1990s such as Nirvana and Soundgarden. Olson is into stripped-down acoustic music from artists such as Elliott Smith. His sludgy, fuzzed-out tune “Turpenteen” on the new album sounds like a killer Foo Fighters track from the mid-‘90s.

A smattering of alt-country in the vein of Wilco and Son Volt, as well as traces of guitar-laden grunge and moments of etherealness, are heard at different points on the four albums of the hard-to-pigeonhole Neoga Blacksmith, whose core members hail from Monticello. Olson described Neoga’s established songwriting process as a familiar “musical shorthand,” in which members are on the same page and supportive in fleshing out ideas.

Olson feels Neoga has evolved from its perceived country sound in recent years, though the group did recently demo country material. He said the songs might be an attempt to see if he and his fellow musicians have an interest in churning out country music or if the genre has run its course within their sphere.

Neoga’s most conspicuous figure is Wade, whose lyrics, according to Olson, cut into the heart of the seedier side of middle America. Olson said Wade is an eclectic individual whose words cleverly sum up certain societal deteriorations of the 21st century.

“Scrapper’s Delight,” for example, offers the perspective of a guy stealing copper wire out of foreclosed homes to make some cash. More innocently, when Wade warbles about a long-lost car on the song “Grandpa’s a Dodge Man,” from the band’s self-titled debut, listeners are practically right there on the front porch watching cars and life rust away. Many of these tunes are humorous, but there is also a serious side to them as Olson sees it.

“There’s kind of like this working-class, blue-collar kind of desperation — I hate to characterize it in that way — but I guess that’s where you might make the connection and call us an Americana band. He provides a lot of commentary, I think, on this era of American experience or what it’s like for people,” Olson said.

The band has an upcoming show at the Iron Post and may go on a brief regional tour. Beyond that, Olson is unsure of what’s ahead for Neoga Blacksmith. Usher contributed to songs that didn’t make the cut on Chronontonius, tunes that could be released in the future.

“That’s another silver lining, I guess, if you have to look at it that way, is that we have a pretty large body of things that we did with [Usher] that we just haven’t put out yet. We haven’t taken the time to develop them wholly, so we’ll continue to get to play with him in a sense for the foreseeable future, for a little while at least,” Olson said.

That is indeed a silver lining for fans of Neoga Blacksmith.

Neoga Blacksmith has thankfully continued to make music since this article was published in 2017. Check out the group’s Bandcamp page to listen to their EP and all past albums listed on the right side of the page.

Photo by Suvan Chowdhury


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