Considering the toll that life can take, credit should be given to the songwriters who make it their goal to survey and understand some of the most daunting emotional terrain. The best of them are lucky to stay the course at all, as so many aspiring artists are pushed off course not by their own inabilities or creative drought, but rather consumed or distracted by the infinite other forces defining an existence.
But in what will become one of the more appreciated stories of unretirement, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gustafson persevered through a murky, discouraging couple of years, no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic. And instead of walking away as he’d contemplated, he returned to songwriting with the release of Dust, his newest album as The Dead Tongues, put out just last month via Psychic Hotline.
As part of his steady return to recording and performing, Ryan brought his musical project to Jammin’ Java on May 7 in an intimate showcase of his honed frequency and the elegant agony and wisdom in his compositions.
Dressed in an all-white getup and wearing a bounty hunter’s cap, the beguiling Gustafson took the stage before a venue packed with folks who were seated at tables and enjoying fresh, hot Union Pie pizza. With his eyes wide and maybe even a bit cautious, Ryan began a set that pulled from four of his studio releases, primarily his newest but dating back to his second album as The Dead Tongues, the 2016 self-produced Montana.
“Dust,” the wayfaring title track from his latest record, opened a window to the journey that has been Ryan’s career as an artist, which in the 2000s saw him embark on his solo work. A wandering, rustic piece, it was saturated with longing and featured a painfully gorgeous admission of a chorus, Gustafson and his team of standout musicians were affectingly illustrated and impassioned as they used this song to open the door to the world Ryan has created with his bravery in his lyrics and a solace in the resonance.
Stream The Dead Tongues’ newest Psychic Hotline studio album, Dust, via Spotify:
“Good evening,” he greeted the crowd, adjusting and then searching for something in his pockets. “It’s good to be back at Jammin’ Java. … These guys are gonna get this next one started, and I’m going to go get my finger picks out of the green room.”
But, alas, they were in his pocket. He asked about the volume in his wedge, then he said he realized he needed adjust something and quickly addressed it. Later, he’d comment on his own lack of technical savvy. And these innocent moments of pause served to more deeply endear Ryan, who like many artists is still working his way back into a rhythm both in terms of recording and live performance.
And he had the right company to help him find his pace at Jammin Java, where he was joined by Maddie Shuler on electric and lap steel guitar, Jeff Ratner on the electric bass and drummer Joe Westerlund, who opened the night with a supernatural solo set.
Ryan used the finger picks on his acoustic guitar, and Maddie sat in a chair to use the lap steel on a pondering edition of “Ebb and Flow,” from 2018’s Unsung Passage. Ryan was masterful and showed his abilities as a multi-tasking bandleader in providing these solemn vocals, creating a repeated strut with detailed picking and engulfing the seated crowd with his powerful, and timeless whistles through the harmonica, which, just like on his albums, resonated at just the right distance from the other instruments. With the supporting vocals of Maddie to his right, Jeff to his left and Joe just behind him, the focus of the room had effectively shifted from the delicious pizza.
“I don’t know why I always insist on making things more difficult on myself,” said Ryan, looking for something else, adjusting this and that. He looked into the stage lights glowing back at him.
“I love these old lights. They heat you up. All the new cool lights, they give you no heat.”
Watch the official video for “Dust,” the title track from The Dead Tongues’ newest studio release, via the band’s YouTube channel:
Hailing from Ashville, North Carolina, Ryan took an admirable step into songcraft back in 2009 when under his own name he recorded the now hard-to-acquire Donkey LP before he emerged in 2012 with a cassingle as The Dead Tongues — and then in 2013, the first self-released full-length album, titled Desert.
As was recently described in various articles, and in an illustration of just how testing this era has been for artists, the talented North Carolina native almost walked away from music altogether. After issuing one of the most exceptional pandemic-era submission in 2020’s Transmigration Blues, later released as an expanded deluxe version, Gustafson struggled to see music as a part of his future.
Given the weight of his songs and the meaning they carry, one could understand the spiritual burden he presumably places upon himself as the source behind these breathtaking, remarkable compositions that seem heavily influenced by old-time string bands and lonesome folk.
Songs like the wondrous, coming of age “Strangers,” from Transmigration Blues, shined light on the thrust of Gustafson’s writing, and it paved way at the NoVa venue for his voice to amplify, almost to a cry, as this song hit its most striking verse: “All I see is the shape of a stranger now / I don’t know why / I can’t tell anymore / But everything feels like life, death, and danger.”
His fetching voice and his ability to accompany the harmonica in a way that embellishes and intensifies each song puts him in rare company, and the ceremonious night in Vienna felt like an accomplishment, as Ryan would smile to his colleagues afterward as a sign of a job well done.
“How’s the food?” he asked.
“Not as good as the music!” someone complimented, which, if you caught a whiff of the place, was a genuine attempt at a compliment.
Nevertheless, Ryan evaded the praise — much more of a seasoned veteran than The Dead Tongues’ catalogue indicates.
“You impress, you unimpress, then you put everyone in the fun zone,” he laughed.
“It feels like we’re in the fun zone,” responded a random voice.
Stream the expanded deluxe edition of The Dead Tongues’ 2020 studio album Transmigration Blues via Spotify:
Redirecting the attention, Gustafson called out his supporting squad individually beginning with Westerlund, whose 2020 album Reveries in the Rift was on sale after the show at the merch table alongside Ryan’s goods.
Joe, who is dynamic and at the moment a member of numerous influential outfits, used his hands on a snare drum to start the varied beat to “Ebb and Flow,” a favorite from Unsung Passage. Later, he added texture and tonicity to “Nothingness and Everything,” an essential and transportive track that featured luminous vocals from both Shuler and Ratner.
Shuler was outstanding on the electric guitar, insightfully fusing bursts into a song’s progression or weaving some of the fabric that made the presentation wholly unique and a celebration of the authentic vehicle Ryan’s created. But Maddie was equally if not more head-turning with the lap steel — Shuler’s stunning contribution in “Sweet Relief” from Dust helped make it one of the most unforgettable offerings of the night.
Jeff was friendly and attentive to his mates and bopped and grooved while adding the hopeful and resilient bounce in tracks from the past couple Dead Tongues albums. He helped rekindle the oldest cut of the night in the bucolic “Graveyard Fields” from Montana. A song later, Ratner helped concoct the provocative advances in “Little Lies,” also an opportunity for Ryan to put a slide on his left pinky and use that to give this song its bold character. Closing out the set, Gustafson treated the audience to a rich delivery of “Pawnshop Dollar Bill,” one of his most ambitious pieces, and then a tender, restorative version of “Won’t Be Long,” the opening track to Unsung Passage.
Having developed a distinct sound across The Dead Tongues recordings, even with a changing cast of musicians, Ryan has been on a voyage that he’s discussed publicly, one that has defined the music he’s written. With a heart-wrenching perspective, his songs seem to be on a never-ending search for something, and few artists can make a listener want to loom for so long in that risky space.
Fortuitously for his fans, the number of which are no doubt growing quickly as of late, Gustafson’s path has given him the inspiration to come forward with more original work that in itself should be celebrated. And meanwhile, he’s back out on the road with a bright group of friends as an appealing sight and a sound to behold.
Ebb and Flow
Through The Glass
Pale November Dew
Nothingness and Everything
Pawnshop Dollar Bill
Won’t Be Long
Here are images of The Dead Tongues along with drummer Joe Westerlund performing solo as the evening’s opening act at Jammin Java on May 7, 2022.
Joe Westerlund solo