+ By Tom Levine + Photos by Alison Harbough
If it’s a Thursday evening and you’re in Annapolis, it’s a pretty sure bet that you’ll find Jordan Sokel hard at work. Same place he’s been, pretty much every Thursday, for the past seven years. Unlike many of us who would chafe at the routine, Sokel is a happy man. He’s at the Rams Head on West Street, playing his guitar and harmonica and singing and just having a good old rock ‘n roll time. His band, Pressing Strings, landed this gig in 2007 and Sokel is the last of the original group still standing. The current lineup is one of the big reasons he is smiling. The band has trimmed to a trio: guitar, bass, and drums…and they sound great.
Bassist Nick Welker joined about three years ago after he and Sokel met at a party. Sokel invited him to sit in with an earlier configuration of Pressing Strings. The band had never had a bassist, but when they finished Sokel asked him to join the band. Welker had no idea he had been in an audition. He smiled and said “yes.”
Brandon Bartlett, the drummer, grew up with a father who played drums. He started playing when he was five. And as he remembers it, “I was better than him by the time I was seven.” Twenty five years later, he’s still at it. He’s honed his skills in NYC working for Niles Rodgers and studying at the Drummers Collective. And after a year with Pressing Strings, I’m guessing that he’s still better than his father.
I first heard Pressing Strings perform at the downstairs tavern at the Rams Head. When I walked in close to eleven-o-clock, the room was packed and the crowd was dancing and I was hooked. It was one of those moments when you happen upon a band that immediately gets your attention. The material is almost all original, words and music courtesy of Sokel who is a singer/songwriter at heart. His songwriting and musical tastes have evolved over the last seven years as Pressing Strings has remolded itself. The touchstones are American roots music: funk, blues, soul, R&B, folk, and jazz. And if you think you occasionally hear a bit of that infectious off-beat rhythm of reggae, you’re right. But while the band is a touch of all of these things, in the end they are none of them. Their sound is their own. Even when they are playing a cover, they own it. A song may be half over before you realize, “Oh yeah! That’s a Paul Simon song.”
The night before the Rams Head show, I went to hear Sokel perform solo at Dry 85 on Main Street, a room that gives a nod to American whiskies as much as Pressing Strings does to American music. The room was decidedly less energetic than the Rams Head, which was as it should be for a singer with only his acoustic guitar and his harmonica. It was a joy to hear Sokel sing. His voice was melodic with a hint of rasp, his songs soulful and real.
As good as Sokel was as a solo artist, I wasn’t prepared for the plugged-in trio at the Rams Head. The sound was full, the music rocked, and the audience couldn’t sit still. Nobody was politely sipping fine whiskey. They were knocking back shots and dancing out of their shoes. Bartlett’s drumming was always right where it should be. With Welker’s bass they provided a solid bottom for Sokel’s guitar and voice. They made the kind of music that gets you bouncing before you know what hit you. The audience was theirs. As Thursday evening became Friday morning, nobody was shouting out drunken requests for their favorite Jimmy Buffett/Eagles/Fleetwood Mac song and nobody was ready to leave. In his song, “Live Wire (Gold Standard)” Sokel sings to us (a bit defiantly), “I’m going to test the room with original tunes.” Now, after seven years of working his music, he can finally smile and stop testing the room. His band is spot on and the audience is loving it.[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][/vc_column][/vc_row]