In my short career as a music columnist at the Driftless Journal, I have had the pleasure of witnessing some phenomenal music being made. And even in the brief existence of this column, I feel as though I have been more than fortunate to chat with some incredibly talented artists.
However, and with only the slightest amount of hyperbole, I believe that the Avey Grouws Band is one of the best bands to have ties to the Driftless area. I mean, their accolades speak for themselves: Debut album which hit #10 on the Billboard Blues charts, top honors in the Unsigned Only Songwriting Competition and International Songwriting Competition, a nomination for Best New Artist Debut Album in the 2020 BBMAs and nominations in four categories in the Independent Blues Awards.
For this jam-packed edition of the Driftless Playlist, I sat down and chatted with Jeni Grouws—lead singer, frontwoman, business manager—to discuss all things Avey Grouws. We’ll cover the history of the band (for those who don’t already know), as well as some thoughts on the new album, available September 24.
From the top
When Jeni Grouws moved from Los Angeles to Decorah in 2004, little did she know that by being involved with the radio station her parents owned (KDEC), she would be introduced to a whole new world of possibilities. In proving that life has no clear linear path, Grouws went from hosting karaoke on the radio as part of a segment, to providing a backing band for people to sing with, to joining a band of her own, to forming her own band.
That first band, called Absolute Hoot, was a big project for Grouws. The band, which was around for almost 11 years by Grouws’ recollection, did a lot of covers while also venturing out into each member’s individual tastes. For Grouws, that took shape in the form of the country and folk music she grew up on.
Blues was also an influence – a common thread throughout her musical career. Absolute Hoot played “whatever each member thought was fun,” which included blues icons such as Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. Grouws grew up in music, both in the classical sense, as well as in a household that listened to a wide variety of genres. As a youth, Grouws learned to sing, as well as play trumpet and guitar – albeit, in her own words, “not that well.”
In 2008, while in the midst of what she called a “pretty major depression,” Grouws was given “a prescription to write a song.” That experience “was an eye-opening moment,” said Grouws. She ended up writing more, which resulted in her first EP. Through that process, Grouws realized “You don’t have to be perfect to make music,” something that has stuck with her throughout her whole career.
Meet the band
While working at KDEC in April 2015, Grouws went on a business trip to the Quad Cities. While looking for something to do, she and a friend decided to head over to a blues jam at local bar Muddy Waters. Unsurprisingly, she signed up to go jam with the band on stage, which included Chris Avey on guitar and Bryan West on drums.
After that fateful meeting, Grouws notes “right away there was a camaraderie.” She knew that there was something special in the dynamic between them, and that if realized the band had great potential. “I don’t want to make too much magic into it, but it was a magical moment,” said Grouws.
From that point, Grouws began, by her own accord, pestering Avey into playing another show with her. “If it doesn’t work, we don’t ever have to do it again,” said Grouws. The pestering paid off, as in 2016 Grouws joined the band for a few shows, under the name “Chris Avey Band with special guest Jeni Grouws.” That would continue until New Year’s Day 2017, when the group, while hungover and tired from a successful gig the night before, officially decided to become a band.
Let’s get rolling
In 2017, the band wasted no time building their rep. That June, the group entered the Iowa Blues Challenge and won. With that victory, they won recording time and put together their first EP.
On that first EP, Grouws said, “Oh you can tell ‘that’s a Jeni song, that’s a Chris song’.” Meaning, the band was still very much trying to find their own sound. Through that time, they continue playing shows together, and writing new music. In 2018, they released their debut EP, titled ‘Road to Memphis’.
Moving forward, the band continues playing shows and writing songs. In 2020, their first album ‘The Devil May Care’ is released. During the week the album was to be released, the country shut down. The listening party intended for a large group of people to enjoy the album for the first time? Canceled. However, being the businesswoman that she is, Grouws had a plan.
The new normal
While people couldn’t gather in person to enjoy the new Avey Grouws Band album, the band transitioned to meet them where they were. They held their listening party online, from the boys’ apartment in the Quad Cities.
That spawned a series of performances on Fridays and Sundays called “Friday Night Live” and “Bloody Marys and Blues”, aimed at bringing people enjoyment while they were stuck at home. They did over 100 of these shows, beginning March 20, 2020. Grouws would drive down to the Quad Cities on a Friday afternoon, perform for a live (via satellite) crowd upwards of one thousand people, crash on Chris’ couch until Sunday, perform again, then head home Sunday afternoon.
Grouws noted the humble beginnings of these live shows, when they were still figuring it out. “We just used my crappy broken phone … for the first month we were duct taping it to the wall.” Yet, despite the modest production value, the band created something special. “I’ve literally gotten messages saying ‘Your music saved me’ from people. You know, some single guy living alone, who doesn’t get any interaction, we allowed people to get connected and have fun,” explained Grouws.
Tell Tale Heart
Even though the band put out “The Devil May Care” in 2020, they decided that they could do more. As Grouws put it, “It’s how my brain works. I just can’t shut it off sometimes.” While most of us were in lockdown, binge watching television shows in our pajamas, Grouws noted that a new album “Came about because we got bored.”
“It started to feel like the album [Devil May Care] felt old to us, because so much was flying by,” said Grouws. 2020 saw an ever-growing list of possible gigs get canceled for the group, so in the meantime they decided to stay busy. Due to their status as full-time musicians, the band was able to devote a lot of their time cooped up toward putting together new music. “It’s pretty amazing what can happen when you allow yourself the time to be creative,” said Grouws.
Avey, ever the prolific songwriter, sent Grouws hundreds of guitar licks, the beginnings of songs. And, during those long drives to the Quad Cities every weekend—which resulted in Grouws driving over 16,000 miles – Grouws would come up with vocal parts for those songs. Grouws noted she has “hundreds” of the beginnings of these songs, some of which ended up being part of the album. “If I feel it, it’s there,” said Grouws.
And while the storm and stress of the outside world raged on, the Avey Grouws Band used those conditions to help fuel their creative fires. ‘Tell Tale Heart’ is a work that is ever reflective of the world we have come to know, without having it be too in-your-face for the entire runtime.
Having seen Avey Grouws Band play live a handful of times, I have gotten to witness the fantastic chemistry not only between the members, but also between the band and the crowd. Admittedly, they call themselves a “live band,” but that energy translates fantastically to the studio. In my opinion, the worst thing an album can be is boring. It can be bad, sure, but if I’m entertained, I’m more than willing to look past any technical shortcomings.
Avey Grouws Band has technicality and entertainment in spades. I use the phrase “no-skip album” as some of the highest praise I can give to a work of music. Members of my list of “no-skips” include Alanis Morrisette’s “Jagged Little Pill”; The Doors’ “L.A. Woman”; Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love” and so many more – but you see the level. “Tell Tale Heart” is an album that is more than capable of being played all the way through.
The way Grouws describes the tracks on the album is more than accurate. She said, “They’re like my daughters. They literally share DNA, but they’re all different. That’s exactly what I feel like this album is like. We have 10 children on this album, and they’re all very different, and we love them all.” The band learned from their prior releases, of which Grouws said they were “trying to find what [their] sound was” while also playing “what we though the ‘blues world’ would appreciate or accept.” Now, they realize that they can be “super eclectic” while also maintaining the fact that it’s “all us.”
This album does a good job of not only showing the influences from different genres – it jumps from blues to rock to folk and back to blues in a matter of four tracks – but also showing how all of those genres can come together and be cohesive. This album is uniquely Avey Grouws, in a way that their prior releases were somewhat struggling to deliver. That isn’t to say the prior releases aren’t good, they just aren’t entirely personal.
For my money, the album’s standouts are some that are the least “bluesy,” including the epic seven-minute jam session called “Mariana”. On that song, Grouws notes that they only played it four times, total. They grabbed their instruments, sat down, and just jammed; then picked out the one take they liked the best. Additionally, it’s the only track on the album that doesn’t use what is called a “click track”, or a tool used to help keep the band in time while recording. “Mariana” is free-flowing yet gripping; subtle yet strong; passive yet holds your attention the entire time.
If looking for something more bluesy, I’d recommend seeking out “Bad, Bad Year.” Truly, it’s everything you’d want a blues song to be. Plus, even though it seems like it could be preachy and patronizing – talking about what everyone knows was a bad year—it gives a simple message we can all appreciate. The titular track “Tell Tale Heart” also lives up to the connotation of the Poe story. It’s a little dark, a little heavy, and yet beautiful at the same time. Imagine this band riffing on the song “She’s So Heavy” by The Beatles, mixed with the drama of Amy Winehouse. When I heard “Tell Tale Heart” performed live for the first time, I noted that Grouws is delicate, wounded even, but still has that rural grit.
From that emotion, Avey Grouws Band are also able to produce an equal amount of joy, too. The song “Eye to Eye” is the perfect amount of cheese, and you can tell that the band has as much fun playing it as the crowd does listening to it—despite Grouws saying “Chris [Avey] hates that song.” It’s that mid-to-late 70s ballad duet that is a little over the top, but in the way that you can’t help but feel good after. Moreover, it’s real. On the album, you can hear Avey and Grouws bickering live during the recording session, which they decided later to leave in.
In all, the Avey Grouws Band does a good job of distilling their live experience and producing an album that’s a close representation to the real thing—although there really is no substitute for a live show. The album ‘Tell Tale Heart’ is a fantastic 40ish minute journey and is certainly a can’t-miss release from the group.
The Driftless Region should be proud to be able to claim Avey Grouws Band as their own, even if most of the members aren’t quite from here. ‘Tell Tale Heart’ is out Friday, September 24, and is available for purchase online at aveygrouwsband.bandcamp.com or on streaming services like Spotify. Additionally, physical copies are available at all Avey Grouws Band shows.
Avey Grouws Band returns to the Driftless Area Oct. 2, in Mabel, Minn. and Oct. 9 at Pivo Brewery in Calmar.