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Bloomington blues-rockers Old Smoke find a complementary sound

Adam Humphreys and Jessica Wheet of Old Smoke
Old Smoke
Adam Humphreys and Jessica Wheet of Old Smoke.

The Bloomington-based blues-rocking band Old Smoke has had some major changes in its relative youth. Part-time background vocalist Jessica Wheet moved up front and became the group's principal lyricist beginning with last year’s EP “Onward.” Then former lead-vocalist, guitarist and co-songwriter Adam Humphreys transferred to Georgia.

What’s an emerging band to do? Create a new album, of course, via file sharing.

Wheet and Humphreys spoke with WGLT about their brand-new EP “Dreams.” Wheet said everyone in the band made her move to lead vocalist smooth and easy.

“Adam and I … we just work so well together. The song ideas that he comes up with, they just resonate with me so no convincing me to it at all,” said Wheet.

As for the song ideas, “Dreams” continues the rockin’-blues sound Old Smoke is known for, with the exception of the title track, a melding of Southern-rock, gospel and soul. As Humphreys is the music idea starter, you might think he’s absorbed some southern clay with his move to Georgia.

“Honestly, as we've stayed together as a group, we've tried to move into exploring different realms,” he said. “And as we were finishing (the previous EP) 'Onward,' I was starting to experiment with open tunings on the guitar that helped bust me out of a rut when it came to the types of riffs that we were writing. And we came up with these three songs that were written on open tuning guitars. It helped me with new ideas and new melodies. We're very proud of the direction that it went.”

The title track is definitely a departure from the old sound, though the other two songs “Stand Up” and “Illusionist” give old fans a taste of what they’ve come to love from Old Smoke. Humphreys said he likes to turn to some of his favorite musicians for inspiration, including the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

“I think they have matured over the years. All the groups that we're interested in have matured in that way. They've looked for new realms and new ways to express themselves. And I think that's where my head was when I came up with these riffs. The musical ideas are usually mine, and then I bounce them back to Jessica and that's where they really take their final form when she comes up with the words,” said Humphreys.

I see a shining light
Coming for me
Gonna hide
Because I want those darkened nights
Where I dream a dream of you.
- Dreams by Old Smoke

Yeah, this one means a lot to me,” said Wheet of her lyrics. “It was actually about a family member, and the conversations that I had had with her, and it's about what she was going through … the loss that she had had. And that feeling of only being able to be with somebody in your mind because they're gone. It's that feeling of you can't wait to fall asleep to be able to see them in your dreams, but then you never want to wake up from that.”

The first indication this EP was something special is when Old Smoke bandmate Heath Brandon sent WGLT an email and hipping us to it and saying that especially the title track was something the band collectively was as proud of as anything it had ever done.

“That's how I feel,” said Wheet.

“That's how I feel about it too,” added Humphreys. “I feel like we've always been blues rockers and distorted guitars and heavy riffs and that kind of stuff. We have fun with it. But this to me … this was a step in that direction of in my mind of maturing and putting out something that I'm very proud of.”

“Some of the writing that I did on this happened with my husband, the (bands) drummer Travis Wheet, but also Adam, worked on the chorus for one of the songs that's on the EP too, so just the whole process of it. And the sound that we came up with … all of that meant a lot to me going through this,” added Wheet.

That rockin’ blues sound did show up on the song “Stand Up":

Heart is cold, eyes black
Poison in the well, it’s a sneak attack
Wicked hand, spoon fed mouth
foot on their neck, what’s it all about 

Why you do it, why you do it
Drawing’ that line in the sand
hold you to it and hold you to it
you’re not the law, your only one man 
- “Stand Up” by Old Smoke

“It would be about current events,” said Wheet. “It's really about people who have a lot of power and a lot of money. They've been given everything they have without having to earn it. They could use their voice … they could use those things to do so much good. But instead, they use it for their own agenda.”

"The Illusionist" is a 9-minute-plus opus that even when Wheet’s powerful voice is resting, Humphreys guitar seems to give the song a second vocalist.

“We knew I was moving away, and we looked at it as a chance to really try to get the feel of one of our live shows,” explained Humphreys. “So, we recorded this song. I think we did it in one take, no overdubs. And we really wanted to have fun with it and just kind of get that feel of playing live. That's why it sounds the way that it does. It's raw and there's no overdubs. And I do believe that that's how we sound when we when we play live.”

And like “Stand Up,” “The Illusionist” has a pointed message.

“It's really about somebody who's putting on a show for people that's just really so believable and so well-rehearsed … almost. But you pull back the curtains and it's all fake, but nobody notices that,” said Wheet.

“Dreams” from Old Smoke is now available. You can also hear songs from the new EP on WGLT's Highway 309.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.