Cory Chisel knows his rock-and-roll history, so he's well aware of the significance of the Levitt Shell, where he and three other acts on the Wild Rovers Tour will be playing.
"That's the very first place Elvis Presley got paid to play — on that stage!" he exclaims with rock-nerd awe. "Johnny Cash and that Sun Records crew all came up playing that stage and others like it. You walk into that kind of place, and you feel like you're connected to something that is bigger than any one band. It's hallowed ground."
The Wild Rovers Tour is a throwback of sorts to the old revues that saw Presley, Cash, and others sharing the same bill and occasionally the same band. Chisel will be backing and backed by the Candles, Space Woman, and Adriel Denae (of Chisel's backing band, the Wandering Sons). Of course, none of them have illusions about their popularity compared to that of their local forebears, but that's beside the point. As Chisel remarks, "It just seems like this stage was meant for this kind of party."
It's far too early to tell, but to hear him talk about Wild Rovers, it may end up becoming a turning point in Chisel's career — that moment that inspires him not only musically but also professionally. He has spent years on small labels and a few more on a major but is getting his head around a slightly more DIY approach. "After a while, you start thinking your music is a product," he explains. "It's supposed to be a gift from a very sacred part of yourself. I need to get connected to that again."
Hailing from Appleton, Wisconsin, Chisel grew up in a Baptist church, where his father served as preacher and his mother pianist. Rock-and-roll was largely forbidden, but as a teenager he discovered bluesmen like Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, not to mention folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and the Band. When he was 15, he formed his first band, a punk outfit called Breathing Machine, which eventually transformed into the Wandering Sons. He kept that moniker for years, even when he took top billing and even when the lineup continued to revolve. (These days, Denae remains the only permanent Son.)
With each subsequent album, Chisel refined his mix of earthy rock influences and hymnal melodies. He may have strayed far from the church, but he does not avoid spiritual matters in his lyrics. His characters, whether identifiable as Chisel or not, find themselves torn between the worldly and the otherworldly, awaiting a salvation they might not even recognize. That stark yearning, combined with a voice that sounds like Elvis Costello as a Packers fan, has established Chisel as an original voice in the roots-rock scene.
A hard-touring musician who typically spends more time on the road than off, Chisel says the Wild Rover Tour grew out of backstage jam sessions while he was opening for Norah Jones. Her backing band, the Candles (who just released a solid second album, La Candalaria), would hold impromptu get-togethers, with Chisel and Denae joining in.
"We'd be playing songs together before and after shows," Chisel says. "We all love the same bands, so we'd be playing Dead songs, Tom Waits songs, stuff like that." Rather than part ways after Jones' tour, the crew decided to head out on their own. "We decided we would go to the big cities and play the tiniest rooms we can, and then we'd go to the strange little towns off the highway and play the biggest show we can."
For Chisel — who released his third album, Old Believers, last year — the tour has resurrected some old songs he had either forgotten about or grown tired of. "You look at your songs differently when you're playing them right next to a bunch of your friends' songs," he says. "Some of them are rewriting themselves. This type of collaboration just gets every creative synapse in my brain firing." In particular, songs from his earliest releases — including Cabin Ghosts in 2008 and Little Bird in 2006 — are getting dusted off and reinterpreted among friends. "I fell out of love with a song that I wrote called 'My Heart Will Be There,' but the rest of the team love that song and demanded it be on the setlist. Now it's back in my life again."
Chisel has few concrete plans beyond the Wild Rovers Tour; in fact, he's not sure when it will end or whether they'll document it via a live album or concert film. For the moment, he's satisfied to enjoy the show.
"I'm enjoying the freedom of not having a label look at me and demand a plan," he explains. "It's up to us to find ways to have fun with each other and really give the audience an experience they love. I'm still learning how to love making records. I don't like playing for microphones. I like playing for people."
The Wild Rovers Tour, featuring Cory Chisel, The Candles, Adriel Denae, and Space Woman
Friday, August 16th