Jammed into a corner at Anchors Bar and Grill in Sparks, the five members of Terrapin Road were close enough to bring the groove on and give the audience a good lesson in the blues. The band formed almost by accident after a few informal jam sessions at Maytan Music. Not one of these men was searching for the camaraderie of band life, necessarily. They’re all just laid-back, cool cats who love to play boogie and the blues.
Drummer and band leader Steve Thoma, along with a striking Tim Allen look-a-like, sat at a table eating a sandwich and salad while the other guys set up and got the acoustics worked out for the smaller space in Anchors.
With Thoma on drums, Gary Wheeler, Gary Fritz and Michael Ray on guitar, and Nigel Giddings on keyboard and an intermittent infusion of maracas and tambourines, Terrapin Road has a loud, swinging, constantly soulful jam.
“Listening to us is like a history lesson of the blues,” says Thoma. “We start with one guy with a guitar, Mikey, who’s a songwriter from Nashville. Then we add another guy with a guitar, Gary Wheeler, then another guy with a guitar, Gary Fritz. Then Nigel and I jump in.”
Sitting center stage in a tan straw hat, suspenders and leather sandals, Ray propped his guitar on his lap and got to it with “Deep River Blues.” His scruffy molasses voice synched with the New Orleans-style guitar, leaving the audience free to tap their feet and really listen to the blues lines. He finished off with a strong, vibrant yodel that brought down the sparse house.
After a few more one-man tunes, the band brought out Gary Wheeler, a tall, goateed man sporting the dobro, an all-metal guitar. The strong interaction between Wheeler and Ray built a tremendous energy in the music (Ray’s own “Red Label, Blue Morning"), and the swinging synergy pressed on.
Fritz joined the gang shortly thereafter, adding yet another point of interaction to intensify the blues. The guys change up guitars now and then, and the bass moves around a few times, too.
When Thoma and Giddings just can’t take not playing anymore, the two jump in. Their first tune, “Katie Mae,” has a killer drum beat with a hint of tambourine. Wheeler taps his tan snakeskin boots, and the music erupts. You have to tap your feet; it’s just impossible to sit still. Heavy, heavy drums carry the song, building to a truly grooving jam. Ray vigorously underlines the words “Katie Mae” with strong rhythm-and-blues acoustic guitar reminiscent of the old-timer blues greats.
After all, the blues greats are the passion and soul of this band. “We’re keeping something alive,” says Ray. “We’re trying not to let it die off.”
Thoma says it’s the band’s way of honoring the blues. “We have 70 tunes we know and 177 on the list to work on. But we’re getting there.”
Really, it hasn’t taken too long to get started. The band has only been together for a few months, and it’s only been gigging for four. Yet, it’s amassed one groupie, (the “other Gary") and a set list of lamenting, swinging and jazzy tunes to form a living history of the blues.