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Conversation: Milwaukee’s ‘Street’ Wise Dead Horses

Dead Horses
Dead Horses from left: Sarah Vos, Daniel Wolff and Jamie Gallagher

I’ve never explored Milwaukee, but if and when I do, I’d want Sarah Vos and Daniel Wolff to show me around. As Dead Horses, they’ve become one of the city’s coolest musical exports, the heart of a collective that’s evolved from an acoustic quasi-bluegrass outfit to a multi-textured indie folk trio. The neighborhood-level vibe of their relationship with their home city is right there on the cover and in the title of their 2022 album Brady Street. During a visit just before their showcase at AmericanaFest 2022, I asked them where would you take me?

“I would take you to any dive bar on the west side of Milwaukee,” Wolff says, his mind rambling across a mental map of the city. “We'd go to like Mitchell and 100th Street and then work our way towards the lake, and stop at a lot of bars on the way.” It’s not that these healthy-looking musicians are obsessed with day drinking - as far as I know. Rather, Wolff’s emphasis was on the city’s convivial spirit. “I think Milwaukee is just a friendly place,” he says. “You have pockets and neighborhoods where people are just living their lives. And when you step into that, you feel welcomed.”

As for Brady Street itself, pictured in its twinkling neon twilight glory on the new album cover, Sarah Vos calls it eclectic and alive. “It’s kind of a place for misfits,” she says. “And it's fun. There's always music happening down there. And a lot of the songs on the new record were fueled by walks that I would take around Milwaukee. And for a couple years, I lived pretty close to Brady Street. So I'd walk there a lot.”

That’s a pretty good orientation to an album that strolls at unhurried tempos and turns corners just to see what’s there. The Dead Horses make denim-comfortable folk rock that offers compassionate glimpses into the secret lives of others and enough small gestures and musical surprises to add up to something truly original and captivating. Besides being a gifted lyricist, Vos has a knack for melodies and a frank, unfussy delivery that reminds me of Susan Cowsill and Kathleen Edwards. Meanwhile, Wolff is no mere sideman. His acoustic bass parts, plucked and bowed, play a substantial role in the sound, and as a player who’s basically learned on this job, he arranges with a freedom a longtime bluegrass or country player might lack.

“I’m a fan. I’ll always be a fan,” says Ken Coomer, the Wilco drummer turned Nashville producer who’s known the band for years. Coomer met Dead Horses after hearing them at Hippie Jack’s near Cookeville, TN, and they invited him to produce 2016’s Cartoon Moon (named after his studio) and 2018’s breakout album My Mother The Moon. “I thought man, this is beautiful. More people need to hear this,” Coomer said about his early impression. “(Sarah’s) so good at conveying a message without preaching. That’s a skill that can’t be taught. Dan is a great upright bass player. He’s studied and schooled, but he can also let go.”

The band produced Brady Street themselves, and Coomer loves that album too. So it seems do Americana radio stations, where the album has been enjoying life in the heart of the chart for three months, which is impressive for an unsigned act. Vos has called Brady Street, which was mostly written in the stillness of the pandemic, a “coming-of-age” record for the band.

For her part, Sarah Vos grew up in Oshkosh in a setting far removed from the folk troubadour life. Her father was the pastor at a fundamentalist Christian church, and Sarah’s formative music experience came from singing hymns with the choir. Then when she was sixteen, according to the band bio, her father and her family were expelled from the church for reasons that had something to do with her brothers’ mental health challenges. Loss of pride and security and sanctuary ripped through her life and upended her college years in Milwaukee. When she retreated back to Oshkosh, she says she was “in a really rough period.” In a music scene centered around the back room of an Oshkosh head shop, she met Daniel and his germinating bluegrass band with two guys Sarah used to know in high school. He was teaching himself the bass, and between the call of music, shared background with conservative church environments, and the desire for connection and expression, Vos and Wolf formed a musical partnership.

“We started playing together in 2010,” says Vos. “Primarily kind of a bar band. I mean, we would play anywhere that would let us play. And we did a lot of outdoor farmers markets, and just places that you didn't have to plug in. But throughout the years, we've had many different kinds of formations of the group. We've had fiddle. We've had mandolin, and we've had a harmonica. And a few years ago, we kind of decided to really hone in on like, who are we like, Who is this band?”

The answer that emerged built on a trio format with drummer Jamie Gallagher who’s based down the highway in Chicago. (Coomer’s take: “I love their drummer. He has just the right touch and texture. It's not predictable what he does. He is the right drummer for them.”) While Gallagher himself says that Dead Horses inspired him to get back on the road again after some years working locally. “I think we can be described as an indie folk band, but in general, you know, I don't like genre naming,” he says. “The thing about songwriting and collaborating is to make some universe happen. And I think that with the instruments we have at our disposal, we can make that work. And a lot of people when they see us live, they say, ‘I know there's three of you on stage, but the sound is bigger than three people.’ I think that's a nice compliment.”

A great example is “OK Kid” from Brady Street. Gallagher’s drums and Wolff’s bass play tug of war in a layered polyrhythm that makes it hard to find the downbeat but which also, somehow, grooves seductively. That slightly off-kilter feeling makes an appropriate setting for Vos to offer us fractalized glimpses of her more carefree youth, a struggling brother, the influence of religion and inner stores of resilience, complemented by a jangle pop refrain. Her guitar playing is creative throughout, filling musical needs without showing off. She says she had to step up in her six-string role after a couple of flashier male guitar players moved on from the band, and her hard work shows. The three-way balance of musicianship is integral to the Dead Horses formula.

The name sounds like a downer version of Patti Smith, but the phrase derives from working through the grief of losing a friend to the opioid scourge. It’s a tribute to him and a backhanded evocation of the empathy that is so central to their songs. This is music that doesn't gallop as it may have sometimes in their grassier days, but it does live and breathe.

Dead Horses: Brady Street (official lyric video)

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org