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Old Smoke Band Finds Purpose, New Dynamic During Pandemic

Travis Wheet, Chris Lackey, Jess Wheet, Heath Brandon, and Adam Humphreys of Old Smoke taking a break from recording at Eclipse Studios in Normal.
Travis Wheet, Chris Lackey, Jess Wheet, Heath Brandon, and Adam Humphreys of Old Smoke taking a break from recording at Eclipse Studios in Normal.

Like many bands, the Bloomington-based quintet Old Smoke used downtime during the pandemic to write and record a new album.

The EP “Onward” is musically similar to Old Smoke’s 2018 rockin’-blues LP “In My Own Time.” But this time around, background singer Jessica Wheet moved to lead vocals.

Guitarist and former lead singer Adam Humphreys said Wheet up-front changed the dynamic of the band for two reasons.

“She has a huge range, so that changes the kinds of songs that we can do,” said Humphreys via Zoom.

It also changed song construction.

“The way that we wrote this EP was totally different than the way that we did in my own time. This was very organic. And it came from a place of … we just wanted to write new stuff with her at the helm. And they were easy. I would write a riff and send it to her. And we would ping-pong back and forth. And next thing I would know, we'd show up to practice and she already had the lyrics written. Then all we had to do was go through it. And we would play it the next show,” said Humphreys.

He said all four songs on the EP were road tested pre-pandemic with bandmates Wheet, her husband/drummer Travis Wheet, keyboard and harp player Chris Lackey, and bassist Heath Brandon.

“Back when there was such thing as live music,” said Humphreys. “And these were our favorite ones that we had come up with. We needed something to do and we were excited to put it to tape.”

There's a lot of darkness on this EP, as three of cuts, including Doctor Doctor, addresses personal foibles and challenges, including mental health issues and/or substance abuse in the case of “Doctor.”

Doctor, doctor, help me out Well medicine man is in high demand You’ve got the remedy to calm me down Ain’t no surprise you’re the world’s best friend “Doctor Doctor” by Old Smoke

“I think you'll find this with almost every song on this album, I bet you if you ask each person in the band, they would have a different reaction as to what the what the lyrics really mean. But yeah, it's definitely along those … it kind of symbolizes the way that we especially as Americans, kind of deal with our problems, though sometimes it's not in the most healthy fashion,” said Humphreys.

“Devil’s Toll” is another cut dealing with demons. Humphreys said the song is a perfect example of how vocalist and lyricist Wheet interprets his guitar riffs.  

“I like to keep my little phone that has the app on it that I can record sound real fast. And that's what this was -- a cool guitar riff that I came up with in my head. And I don't want to get like super political with it. But to me, it was kind of highlighting the way that oppressive regimes can kind of steal your soul by silencing you … as far as like burning books, and that kind of thing. That's what I had in my head. And I think without even telling her … that's what she drew from it as well. So, that happened often when it came to us, sharing ideas back and forth,” said Humphreys.

“I Got the Same Old Blues” is the one cover song on “Onward.” It comes from J.J. Cale’s classic 1974 album “Okie.”

"Yeah, this was one of my favorite songs. It's funky. The whole thing is just … it's one of my favorite albums. When it came time to cover this, we had big shoes to fill. And we really wanted to keep the same idea but kind of move and try to get that kind of smoky, sultry, kind of sitting on a piano in a bar kind of feel. That's really what we were after when it came to the recording studio."

Recording during the pandemic has been a challenge for many bands, but it’s also been a needed outlet. Humphreys said the music and process took on a different meaning over the last year.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Everything from the way that we work to me not having (a job). I've been unemployed for about a year (Humphreys is an airline pilot).”

He said that extended time at home has positively affected the way he sees life and how he views family.

“All it took was a month of being home every night for me to see that my daughter treated me differently,” said Humphreys, referring to his now 3-year-old.

“I guess I didn't know how much time I was spending away … how much it was affecting … you know … her and my wife. And we had a brand new son at the time. So, he's known nothing but me being home all the time. Our anniversary is coming up this week. My wife told me, ‘Hey, you know what? We just spent an entire year where we spent every night together. There has not been a single night when we didn't.’”

“We weren't together like this last year. And we've never done that. I think that's pretty cool,” said Humphreys.

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