When Luke Nutting was home in New Hampshire between semesters at boarding school, he says he’d pack his dog and resonator guitar into a rowboat, push off into the Connecticut River and teach himself to play in open-G tuning. That’s the tuning that bluesmen like Skip James and Son House used to achieve that unrestrained, ragged sound, and it was later adopted by British kids with big amps like Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (and is why, if you try to play “Wild Horses” or “Going to California,” it just won’t sound right).
Red Rattles (Luke Nutting, Ben and Davey Jacobs) likes to keep it simple. Catch an acoustic set on April 16 at Sidetracks, or an amplified one at the Southern on April 26, opening for J. Roddy Walston and The Business.
When Nutting’s guitar was later stolen in college, he only had a banjo—standard in open G. He used it to write songs for his “mountain rock” band, the late 6 Day Bender. And if there’s anything that distinguishes his new band, Red Rattles, from his last, it’s the sound of his electric guitar on the Rattles’ LP Penny Sweets, released on St. Patrick’s Day. Though standard tuned, Nutting’s guitar sound pays due respect to the axe heroes he worshipped on those hot afternoons floating down the river; you can hear both the hefty chops of Richards and Page, and the dusty plucking of James and House. The album’s fidelity falls somewhere in between.
The combination of the short, the sweet and the furious has effectively made Red Rattles one of Charlottesville’s most versatile new bands—if not sonically, then in terms of its appeal. Few local groups come to mind that can entertain both the self-conscious Tea Bazaar bloc and the barflies at Miller’s. Red Rattles has done both. “‘We Got The Spirit’ is the extreme of that,” says Nutting. “It’s just super-chunky and simple, and it goes how it goes.”
Clocking in just shy of two minutes, Rattles songs like “Rainboots”—in which Nutting sings, “I got pristine rainboots on my feet/And I’m ready”—are indeed compact, recalling the early, blown-out work of both the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Nutting also refers to Red Rattles’ sound as “Pentecostal rock,” in that he wants to capture something of the time-warped fury one feels when feeling the holy ghost. “I try to put the show around that transcendental moment, of losing it,” he says. “Of catching the spirit.”
“There’s a religious vibe to it,” agrees drummer Davey Jacobs, wearing Wayfarers sunglasses and sporting a mop of curls near identical to Nutting’s.
Nutting was bursting with new songs when former band 6 Day Bender’s last album, E’ville Fuzz, spent two years in limbo. “There was no need for material for 6 Day Bender, but I wanted to keep writing,” says Nutting. “And so we ran with this. My favorite stuff is the stuff that’s not quite finished.” Nutting recruited drummer Jacobs (like Nutting, he works at Bodo’s by day) and booked a show at The Box for a two-piece. The band was called Penny Sweets, a nod to the short and sweet tunes he’d cooked up for the group.
With the name change and addition of Jacobs’ older brother Ben Jacobs on bass, the thought remains to keep things simple. Nutting says that a lot of bands pay too much mind to detail, in effect overestimating what their fans are going to want to hear in concert. (He compares Red Rattles’ music to a “big dumb hammer.”) “I think people overestimate their audience a lot,” he says. “A lot of bands stand on subtlety too much, and if you’re super zoned-in, you’ll catch it all.”
Red Rattles soon heads down to a house in Lynchburg—perfect for recording because “there’s more buildings than people,” says Nutting—to record its next full-length with Monkeyclaus’ Abel Okugawa. To prepare for the new tunes, they’ve been mining old recordings, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to the Rolling Stones. “We’re a roots band, in a way,” says Nutting. “If you go back to before any of us were around, it appeals to everybody.”
“Old people can dig us,” he says.