When Joel Watson starts playing guitar, he’s in happy land. You can see it in his eyes and in the way he relaxes once he has pick in hand. Not that he’s a high-stress guy to begin with — he’s a laid-back kind of cat — but once he’s off and strumming, he’s in his own world.
“Yeah, it’s kind of an escape,” said Watson. “It just feels natural. It’s always interesting.”
You’d never know from listening to him that Watson is just barely 18 years old — he sounds like he’s been at it for decades. Watson is lead guitarist for the band Steel Rail Express, a group of rock veterans hailing from all over the country, though they’re now all based in Waldo County. Steel Rail Express will play their brand of amped-up, we-mean-business country rock on Friday and Saturday night at Toziers II in Bucksport.
“We take it seriously, in that we want to put on the best show we possibly can, but once all that’s said and done we don’t take it seriously at all,” said Tim Woitowitz, drummer for the band. “We have so much fun onstage. It’s a blast. We wouldn’t play 164 shows a year if it weren’t fun.”
Watson and co-guitarist Paul Vachon are Maine boys, but bassist and lead singer Michael Ponder comes from North Carolina, and Woitowitz grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Ponder and Woitowitz migrated northwards, with Ponder settling in Liberty, Woitowitz in Stockton Springs. The two played with Vachon on and off for years, before meeting Watson.
“We met Joel at an open mic at the Parent Gallery in Belfast,” said Ponder, who grew up playing bluegrass with his family throughout the South, including appearances at the Grand Ole Opry. “I had never seen a kid his age play like that. He’s got soul. He’s got his own thing going on. He plays like he’s been playing for 20 years.”
“I asked him for his phone number, and said we wanted to jam with him. He didn’t think we were actually going to call him. He was 16 at the time,” said Woitowitz, who played with rock bands in and around New York City throughout the 1960s and ’70s. “But we called him the next day. Two days after that we played a gig. We’ve been together ever since.”
Watson got his first guitar when he was 11 years old — a purple Les Paul knockoff that he beat up on for a few years, before graduating to the much nicer models he plays today. For nearly two years, he’s played almost every weekend with Steel Rail Express. The best musical education is sometimes just to dive in headfirst and learn as you go.
“I taught myself guitar, for the most part. And these guys have taught me so much, I can’t even begin to describe it,” said Watson. “I just learn by ear. I don’t know how to read music. I would go to school, but I think it would ruin my technique. I just kind of feel it.”
Steel Rail Express plays a mix of classic rock, country and funk. Think Big and Rich meets AC/DC, with a little bit of Led Zeppelin thrown in for good measure. The band drives around in an old school bus, spray-painted black and red and outfitted with bunk beds. Their mission at each show is to make sure everyone has a good time.
“We’re a party band. We’re a dance band. Our first priority is to make sure everyone is having fun,” said Woitowitz. “We play mostly covers live, but we get our own stuff in there a lot too. If the crowd likes a song, we stick with it. We’re all about pleasing the audience.”
Last weekend, Steel Rail Express won the Colgate Country Challenge in Augusta. They were up against some stiff competition, and the band was shocked and very, very pleased to learn that they’d won. In October, the band will travel to Massachusetts to play the regional semifinals. If they win, they’ll go on to Nashville next year to compete for a recording contract and a cash prize.
For Watson, playing with Steel Rail Express has been a great musical learning experience. It’s also developed into a second family for him.
“We definitely have this kind of psychological connection when we perform. We know exactly what someone’s going to do, just by someone moving a certain way or looking at each other,” said Watson. “It’s a family. They’re my road family.”
Steel Rail Express plays nearly every weekend throughout this state, including this weekend at Toziers II in Bucksport. For a full schedule, and to listen to some tracks from the band, visit myspace.com/sreentertainment.