'Wandering' and 'Sandcastles' Review by Dutcher Snedeker
Elijah Russ has been involved in the West Michigan music community for many years. As a musician, he can often be seen sporting stellar guitar skills with all sorts of groups as a sideman for acts like Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys, Melophobix, The BlueWater Kings Band, The Legal Immigrants, and even touring with Harper & The Midwest Kind. As a soul-rock songwriter and bandleader, he can be heard playing around the region as a soloist and for special events with a full or expanded lineup of Grand Rapids musicians. I personally have been involved in his music as a recording artist with his 2019 single “Mind Your Business” as well as recording a solo on one of his new releases. His passion for the community and music radiates through his playing, and he’s a welcome addition to any lineup. Since his last live album release, The Elijah Russ Collective (Live), he has been hard at work crafting two very distinct albums: Wandering and Sandcastles, both of which release on April 24th with a release event at Wealthy Theatre (which I’m also involved in). One album is enough of an undertaking, but spending time funding, planning, scheduling rehearsals and studio time, commissioning artists, designing and ordering merch, and advertising and executing two albums worth of material is a huge accomplishment. The result feels like two cataloged spectrums of Elijah Russ’ artistry, arranging for different sized bands, styles, and a blending of instrumental and vocal highlights throughout each tune. It speaks to his work ethic and the support of such a vibrant cast of musicians in the West Michigan scene, and while I had to already learn these songs for the event, it was great to dive in and enjoy the tunes outside of studying them for the gig!
Starting with Wandering, this album sports a lo-fi, bedroom studio vibe that is a relaxed way to enjoy Elijah’s playing and songwriting. Each track captures a moment in his travels, delighting in experimenting with songwriting and styles while also programming his own beats and playing some keys. In a recent interview with Local Spins, he mentioned he doesn’t “like to be classified into one genre. I know that that’s advantageous in the industry. But that’s just not who I am. If somebody finds a lo-fi song, and then goes and looks through the rest of my catalog and finds a cinematic rock song, that could be a cool moment.” The album starts with “Evergreen,” a relaxed vibe that sinks your mood right into the coziest parts of your bedroom. It’s relaxed while still highlighting his improvisational skills. “Kung Fu” features lead playing from guest guitarist Jay Roberts and creates a darker, hypnotic loop splashed with voice recordings and a melody overtop highlighted with bells. “St. Louis” sets the table with ambient nature sounds and more directed audio recordings speaking on codependency, grief, and addiction, offering a moment of self-reflection as the track plays. “Swoon” lightens things up with the soundtrack that emulates the feeling of being swept up in love, pairing tongue-and-cheek comedic bits against a vintage recording of a man speaking on the subject. To close the record, a deeply atmospheric rendition of the classic “Colors of the Wind” can be heard against lush recordings of flowing water and chirping birds, creating a beautiful moment of calm to wrap up on.
Sandcastles is an album so large in scope that it is being realized live with a 16-piece band for its debut. It highlights Elijah’s confidence as a bandleader and arranger, wrangling a cast of characters to realize his vision. As a performer in the album release show, I found it so refreshing to see somebody thinking of the little details of a performance: reference tracks, scheduled rehearsals and individual sectionals, and even written charts with plenty of arranging notes to help keep everyone on the same page. That same level of care is showcased on the recording, with a full rock band stacked with strings, horns, and additional layers of vocals, keyboards, and guitars creating a record that feels dynamic and exciting to experience. “It Won’t Be Easy” grooves hard to kick off the record, featuring a stellar guitar solo among a driving rhythm section. “What You Want Me to Be” softens things a little with lush strings while building to such a powerful high point, complete with backing vocals that cut through with rock and roll flare. “Brilliant Mind” continues to ramp up the energy with a latin-rock jam that riffs hard while also features additional melodic layers from the keyboards and synths. Add in another guitar solo from Elijah and you have a great song for an awesome live experience. The funk is front-and-center in “Florida Funk,” unifying the band around a series of bluesy, heavy riffs that is guaranteed to get audiences moving while everyone’s stank-face comes into view at the breakdown riff that builds to the ending. “Requiem” is an instrumental track that shifts between featured improvisations and cinematic textures, and it cements Elijah’s stellar playing throughout the record. “I Would” adds a splash of classic soul on the front end and an explosive jam at the back end, with featured solos from Elijah utilizing different tones and approaches alongside my keyboard solo. “The Other Side” starts off with an intimate intro with piano and vocals, starting the earworm that permeates the entire tune and creates some standout chorus hooks that are colored by strings and backing vocals. To close this record, listeners are treated to a lively gospel rock version of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” complete with a choir of singers and a burst of positive energy to send listeners out into the world.
Musicians tell a story with their art, whether it’s a single track or a wide variety of work. Each song captures a moment in time and a moment of an artist’s life, reflecting the people, places, moods, and inspirations that drive their desire to create. With Wandering and Sandcastles, audiences are treated to a succinct summary of Elijah’s life over the past two years of the pandemic, whether it’s emphasizing his relationships and personal trials or celebrating the people he’s met in his travels or the desire to create soulful rock music that leaves listeners feeling motivated and full of positive energy. Listening to both albums back-to-back also gives a fun variety to Elijah’s artistic output, and it reinforces his desire to not be bound to any one genre or style and to delight in exploration. Fans of rock anthems, solid musicianship, and of an artist actively working to better those around him that he works with and entertains will enjoy these releases, and they are mere previews to the polished live show experiences that he crafts. Go check out the record and see him live sometime!
Support Elijah Russ!
- Dutcher Snedeker
'Wandering and Sandcastles Album Review
by Jennifer Bartlett at Local Spins
What Stands Out: Drenched in soul and vitality, Grand Rapids’ wildly talented Elijah Russ boasts a full house in a dual album-release with “Wandering” and “Sandcastles.” While both pieces are produced with clarity and exquisitely layered, “Wandering’s” lo-fi tunes feel meditative in nature creating space for “Sandcastles” to slide in with more swagger and theatrics offering the listeners a thrilling and enamoring juxtaposition.
Digging Deeper: Embodying a laid back, chillhop vibe, Wandering is lush with calm energy. Contemporary smooth jazz laced with R&B flare, the five instrumental tracks incorporate thought-provoking voice recordings that draw the listener in closer, delivering words that dig into the subconscious. With melodies rooted in blues, the smooth guitar licks and nonchalant beats on “Swoon” are swanky yet soft, poised and sensual. The album wraps up with a surprising intimacy: an ethereal urban twist on the classic Judy Kuhn song, “Colors of the Wind,” written for Disney’s 1995 smash “Pocahontas.” Sadly, the track is under two minutes long leaving the listener’s ear grasping for just one more tranquil minute.
Jumping over to “Sandcastles,” the trance on the audience is broken immediately when bright horns, inspiring lyrics and an upbeat groove awaken the senses. More cinematic than the breezy essence of its sidekick, this eight-song collection scintillates with flares of psychedelic rock, progressive funk and modern jazz featuring strings, electric guitar solos, and the exciting harmonies and syncopation of big band. “Sandcastles” comprises a wider variety of instruments, textures, voices, full choirs and tempos calling full attention to Russ’s direction. It’s no wonder this multi-faceted musician decided to split these 13 new songs into two separate works of art; The variety, sensation and ever-expanding breadth of knowledge and creativity is remarkably impressive. If “Sandcastles” is the ostentatious and extravagant vacation from reality, “Wandering” is the grounding and restful Sunday morning.
Perfect For: Fans of Vulfpeck, Fantompower, Snarky Puppy.
– Jennifer Bartlett, Local Spins
Local Spins Artist Feature
I was supposed to meet Elijah Russ at the new Sparrows Coffee inside Kingma’s Market on Plainfield Avenue in Grand Rapids. Russ lives nearby and it’s one of his go-to’s. But they were closed, something to do with Easter, or the snowy spring weather, or maybe because it was Monday. So we caravan through the flurries down Plainfield and land at Gaia House.
With help from an all-star ensemble, Russ releases two studio records back-to-back on Sunday (April 24) at Wealthy Theatre. One of those releases is an all-out rock album; the second is a foray into lo-fi.
Trying Something New: A product of Russ’ downtime experimenting. (Photo/Loren Johnson)
When I walk in, Russ is seated on the very end of a couch, framed by floral wallpaper. He’s sporting all black: jeans, hoodie, wide brim fedora.
“You know, it’s like one of the albums is really big. It’s got a lot of strings and voices and other instrumentation on it. So I had to figure out how to organize all that and write all those parts into sheet music for other people to get the show organized. It’s a big record, with a lot cinematic rock elements,” Russ says.
“Sandcastles” also boasts an impressive musical cast, including Da’Veonce Washington on drums, Ben Steer on bass and Adam Parada on keyboards. Special guests include Alicia Scott on harmonies, Jordan Hamilton on cello and Dutcher Snedeker on keys, among a host of others. The album was recorded between Chris Newberg’s house, Russ’ place and the Fortress in Grand Rapids.
The second record, the lo-fi leaning “Wandering,” took shape while Russ was traveling. He spent his downtime experimenting and simply “having fun” playing music on his own. The record features Russ on guitar, bass and keys with Jay Roberts on lead guitar for Track 2. “It just hit me in such a way where I was like, ‘I’m gonna just try this and it was really really fun.’ Like I just was having fun making music again. It had been a while since I’d made music without trying to meet a goal or something,” Russ says.
“I don’t like to be classified into one genre. I know that that’s advantageous in the industry. But that’s just not who I am. If somebody finds a lo-fi song, and then goes and looks through the rest of my catalog and finds a cinematic rock song, that could be a cool moment.”
A TWO-PART RELEASE SHOW FEATURING A STAR-STUDDED BAND
After releasing a single in 2018 and a live EP in April 2020, Russ will celebrate his new recording projects with an ambitious live spectacle.
The Albums: ‘Wandering’ and ‘Sandcastles’
Sunday’s two-part release show will begin with a performance of “Wandering,” at 7 p.m. and conclude with a performance of “Sandcastles” with a 16-piece ensemble featuring a string section, a horn section, a small choir and a full rock band. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Get tickets and details online here.
In addition to Russ on guitar and keyboards, the ensemble will feature drummer Da’Veonce Washington, bassist Ben Steer, keyboardists Adam Parada and Dutcher Snedeker, guitarists Zack Volkers and Stefan Schwartz, saxophonist Nathan Hansen, trumpeter Geoff Hansen, trombonist Becky Haine, singers Alicia Scott, Sarena Chandler and Merrin Bethel, viola player Josh Holcomb, violinist Lexi Terrian, cellist Maddy Peters and percussionist Aaron Ross.
We eventually steer the conversation out West, retracing Russ’ steps from a summer 2020 road trip. He tells me about the formative voyage between sips of coffee. He trekked out to Colorado, swung up to Arches National Park and made stops in Tahoe and Crater Lake. Eventually, he landed in Snoqualmie, Wash., just outside Seattle, where he connected with a couple (Jay Roberts and Danica Roberts) who ran an Airbnb out of their home. On his first night there, Russ spotted a guitar hanging on the wall, then another, and another after that. He followed them like bread crumbs down the stairs to the basement where he stumbled upon a professional home studio.
“This dude just blew my mind. Like, from the first notes, it was just absolutely mind-blowing. He was doing everything that I could ever imagine wanting to do. Just all the sounds, like all the good stuff. I was like, ‘Where am I?’” Russ says.
That night, he jammed with Jay and Danica; they asked if he’d play for them. When Jay eventually picked up a guitar to play, Russ was enamored. He ended up staying with the Roberts for two weeks, concluding most evenings with a laid-back jam session. They still keep in touch. Jay has turned into somewhat of a guitar mentor for Russ and even played guitar for a track from “Wandering.”
TEACHING, PLAYING WEDDING GIGS AND VIDEO GAMES
When he returned to Michigan, Russ, who’s originally from Grand Haven, landed back in Grand Rapids, where he’s lived since 2017. He weathered the pandemic by playing wedding gigs in the summer, teaching guitar at Guitar Haven and writing music.He also took another trip out West. While in Montana, he hung out with Van Morrison’s guitar player for coffee and a jam session. Russ also got back into playing video games after years of “barring himself” from doing so to focus on guitar. “I got a PlayStation 4 last summer. I hadn’t played video games for over 11 years. I was doing it too much when I was like 13 or 14. And I was trying to get good at guitar. So I made a deal with the universe: make me good at the guitar and I’ll quit playing video games,” Russ says. “Then last summer, people had been asking me if I had a hobby, you know, and I was kind of thinking about it. I would find myself watching TV, trying to relax with some tea and I’m like still sending emails or whatever. I was like, ‘I need to have something that I just do for fun.’
“So it’s been really nice to kind of switch off and play some video games. I’ve been playing a lot of Ghost of Tsushima. It’s super dope, super stealthy, strategy kind of stuff. And Spider-Man. A lot of Spider-Man.”
From the looks of it – or sounds of it – that deal with the universe seems to be working out for Russ — your friendly, neighborhood guitar slinger.
- Enrique Olmos, Local Spins