Review – The Thirsty River – The St. Croix Sessions

By Evan Verploegh

Newcomers to the local bluegrass scene, The Thirsty River have already been making waves in a genre that has some stiff competition. Only a couple years into their musical journey, the band has already created a very enjoyable, bright and bouncing E.P. In the April release The St. Croix Sessions gives you an inside look to a hardworking, and highly competent group of musicians and manages to stand out against a multitude of impressive americana and bluegrass records.

The E.P. comes out of the gates hot with the quick-picking “Burns Like Coal”. We hear out first hints of the soothing vocal harmonies that The Thirsty River creates. This style is present throughout the album and is very unique to the band. As the song nears its end, we hear a cry of “faster” and it’s double time the rest of the way.

“Superior, WI” takes on a more mellow mood. A perfectly melancholy guitar riff allows a weeping banjo line to complement. The bare bones sound is broken by the introduction of a booming drum and mandolin accompaniment, with the vocals to soaring over the top.

For the third track to The St. Croix Sessions the band ratchets up the tempo again. A steady, yet furious banjo line from Evan Jungbauer gets us going before we get echoing, percussive mandolin licks from the last-name sharing, Ben. Around the 2:15 mark, a stop/start banjo riff sets the stage for a final element of musical exploration before the dust settles. Musically, “Donald Kraus” might be the most interesting on the E.P.

“Snake in a Bag” is simply a classic folk/bluegrass tune. The tune features a twanging vocal, illustrative lyrics and an uptempo section that puts the picking fingers to the test.

The fifth track “Hollow Man” is a haunting track with a gritty, wailing vocal. We hear expressive, and spirited lines being delivered regarding a man who is left a shell by his own vices. This emotionally charged track is a highlight of the well-rounded St. Croix Sessions.

Tempo is lowered for the sixth song and vocals are opened up again to shine. The crisp sounding production on “I Relate to You” allows each instrument to intertwine with one another underneath the continually impressive vocal harmonies. Piano from David Anderson is a very welcome feature of the track, which is sometimes painfully ignored in the bluegrass world.

To close things out, we get a slinky little number called “Levi”. We are quickly thrown into a frisky groove that remains the length of the final track. The steadiness allows for some sauntering banjo and mandolin solos. There is a bit of tongue in the check of this one and it is well deserved after the journey through this multi-faceted record.

A common complaint from those who struggle to fully embrace bluegrass is the feeling of repetitiveness. Songs can sound similar from an instrumentation standpoint and thus interest is lost. If I were to introduce someone to the genre, I would strongly consider giving The St. Croix Sessions spin. Each song takes on a life of its own and begs to stayed tuned in. It’s eclectic releases like this that prove that bluegrass is not only alive and well, but pushing new, forward-thinking boundaries.


Plunging into Thirsty River

Local band bonds like brothers over booze and bluegrass.

By Mary Reller
April 16, 2015

On a Wednesday night in south Minneapolis, Thirsty River sat together burning incense, drinking beers and watching Home Alone 3.

“There’s some pizza in the fridge if you want it!” University of Minnesota alum Evan Jungbauer called to his band from the kitchen.

The members of the flannel-shirted quintet interact like brothers, but two of them aren’t blood-related.

“I tell people — and you guys may not know this so it will be a touching moment for all of us,” vocalist and banjoist Evan Jungbauer said. “I tell people that my brothers are my best friends.”

Evan and his brothers Jake and Ben Jungbauer have been playing music together for years but joined forces with college friends Mike Store (bass and vocals) and David Anderson (piano, washboard and vocals) for bluegrass-Americana band Thirsty River.

“They say that siblings have some uncanny ability to sing together, and I think it’s true,” guitarist and vocalist Jake Jungbauer said.

Brothers are allowed to be critical of one another’s work, making Thirsty River an easy project to be part of, Evan Jungbauer said.

But they are not a “brother band.”

“To call us a ‘brother band’ puts [Mike and David] in the background when that’s not at all the truth,” Evan Jungbauer said. “We all have equal impact on our sound ... each person has a distinct style of playing their instrument … you could listen to each instrument [individually], and it would be an interesting thing to hear.”

The band incorporates the influences from their different musical backgrounds into Thirsty River’s overall vibe, Anderson said.

Store played in garage-punk bands, Anderson played alt-country and Jake Jungbauer played Americana, but Ben Jungbauer introduced the band to the genre that stuck: bluegrass.

Duluth musicians Trampled By Turtles and Charlie Parr were huge inspirations for Thirsty River’s gritty and vivacious sound, Ben Jungbauer said.

With Old Crow Medicine Show’s old timey spirit and Evan and Jake Junbauer’s cheeky lyrics — for example, “Either I’m an alcoholic or I haven’t had enough” — it’s hard not to smirk while listening to these folks.

Over a year ago they competed at a festival for the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Association. One memory from after the show sticks out as one of the most fun experiences Evan Jungbauer had playing an instrument, he said.

A few Thirsty River members were jamming in the hotel lobby when other bluegrass musicians joined in. Suddenly, 50 to 100 other people entered the jam session, which continued for about 20 minutes, Evan Jungbauer said.

“Bluegrass is a very social scene,” he said. “We’ve never met a single asshole.”

Ben Jungbauer agreed.

“I think bluegrass music is a lot more fun than just three guitars strumming,” he said. “This is all about having fun. That’s how we started, and that’s how we want it to continue to go.”

Making ideas work democratically in a five-piece band is easier than one might think. Majority rules, and Anderson is the swing vote, he said.

Everybody has a different passion in the band. It works because we don’t all want to be a singer-songwriter,” Jake Jungbauer said.

The biggest challenge might be getting the five different personalities to work together at a practice without breaking off into tangents.

“It’s hard to get them to focus,” Anderson said. “We’ll all be practicing a song, Evan will be practicing his new riff, then we all start jamming on Evan’s new song for a few minutes — then I have to clap and say ‘Hey! Let’s just finish one thing for a second!’”