Putting together this week’s String featuring Nashville’s Cordovas, I began to think of them as a jam band that doesn’t jam. The vibes and grooves and interplay of instruments, whether live or on the new album That Santa Fe Channel, easily conjure The Grateful Dead, one of their core influences. Yet the nine-song disc clocks in at just under 30 minutes. The stage show features tightly constructed tunes that segue smoothly from one to another rather than relying on instrumental flights.
The quintet can and will absolutely take on and slay a discursive cover of the Dead’s “Ramble On Rose” or “Truckin’,” but their own repertoire eschews the kind of meandering that’s given the jam band ethos a bad name in some parts of the Americana world.
“Our thing is very sensitive to that. We don’t want to be the noodly bros,” said band founder Joe Firstman in one of the outtakes from this week’s full band interview. “Our jams are very worked out. We invite you to come and try to point out what’s improvised because I ain’t going to let you be able to tell. Because it all looks so loose.”
This calculated looseness and effortless complexity took time to hone. The Cordovas story has no clean beginning, as the conversation shows. It cohered gradually as Firstman put his music career back together. Why did Joe Firstman have to put his career back together? That’s a long and interesting story that goes back to the early 2000s.
After some early bands, Firstman moved to Hollywood with little to his name but a load of talent and charisma. In a year or two he was the toast of LA, winning awards and landing a record deal on Atlantic Records. He toured widely and got support but it was a terrible time for the music business. He parted ways with the label in 2005 and took on a more stable gig directing the music and the band for Last Call with Carson Daly. After that ended in 2009, he started assembling the band that would be Cordovas, relocating to Nashville in the process.
Now they all live together at a 1950s era ranch house in Madison TN with a vital amenity - a large outbuilding/barn where their gear stays set up and in constant use. The band rehearses a lot. The five members, Firstman, guitarist Lucca Soria, guitarist Toby Weaver, piano player Sevans Henderson and drummer Graham Spillman are very different in personality but they have a rare synergy as musicians and arrangers.
In our in-depth, full-band conversation, Spillman talks about the band’s blend of the fixed and the fluid.
“I’m trying to serve the songs as best as I’m capable. The nature of the music we play seems to always have a very breathable atmosphere. It reflect the general presence that everybody’s trying to have in normal day to day business - the way you’d interact with people in line at a restaurant is the way we play our shows. Because every moment with people deserves that sensitivity. It’s a lot of listening and being able to be open and to flow and to jump when it’s time to jump and lay down when it’s time to lay down.”
The guys talk about the Tropic of Cancer Concert Series, a two week festival they host in Todos Santos, Mexico. Firstman describes how and when he established that town as his second home.
“When the LA thing was crashing down, when it was finally disintegrating up to its final breaths, I knew that day was coming, and I had built that little house in Mexico for that day. Because I knew that no matter what, if this business or this scene or America at large, the rock and roll scene, dried up, I can go down there and surf.”
Lucca Soria talks about his intimate musical relationship with Toby Weaver as the two conjure twin guitar motifs. And he says living all together at their Madison, TN house is a big help.
“It’s a joy. Basically I wake up and go out to the barn and we go through our set. And we figure out what’s getting kind of old or where there’s no idea happening. We sit down and write parts, because he plays guitar in the most understandable way I’ve ever seen anybody play an instrument. I want to base everything I do off what he’s doing, because it’s truth.”