These days, Split Lip Rayfield rates prime two-night stays such as this weekend's residency at the Bottleneck, which still doesn't guarantee that ticketless wonders will be able to stroll up and pay cash at the door. See, hippies tend to be setlist completists (those who returned for the second evening of Widespread Panic's double-header at the Uptown this May saw a lot of familiar faces), so spare seats might be as scarce as Chiefs season tickets. Unless they get at least as organized as a school of Phishheads, Split Lip's other fans -- haggard country rebels, grease-stained gearheads, Slayer-loving speed freaks -- won't be pickin' a spot in front of the stage or grinnin' when they're left out of the mix.
Not to bash the hippies -- any audience for live local music is a good audience, and the Bottleneck and Davey's Uptown could both benefit from a nearby cluster of concession stands peddling cheap, vegan meals. But it's hard to imagine how they ended up becoming Split Lip Rayfield's core audience. This is a group that turns the latent similarities between bluegrass and thrash-metal backbeats into a chest-rattling reality; players for whom "pick it 'til it bleeds" refers to mandolin and banjo strings, not scabs; a band of mechanic's men who made a bass out of a gas tank. This music doesn't inspire listeners to twirl; it forces them to -- tornado-style.
Mandolin player Wayne Gottstine isn't sure what gives Split Lip (which, like Phish, regrouped this summer after a lengthy break) its granola-friendly flavor. "It's a puzzler," he says. However, he's more than willing to go through the jam-circuit checklist to solve this mystery.
Q: Do you ever "jam out" on songs?
A: "We have a couple songs that we drag out, but we're a structured type of band. We're not really loose in that aspect."
Q: Have you ever played a marathon concert?
A: "We played 45 to 50 songs in Wichita one night during a three-hour set."
Q: How do you feel about being better known for your live shows than for your albums?
A: "We sell a lot of CDs at our shows, but the music industry is such a flooded field. It's hard to use the live show to sell records, because it's backwards. Usually, people hear something that sparks them from the record, then they go see the live show."
Q: Would you sell authorized bootlegs of Split Lip shows on your Web site?
A: "It's possible, but we're on a record label, and we could only go through them to do that. That's a rough call, but we can't sell records independently until our contract is up."
Q: Have you ever played a festival in the middle of a field?
A: "We played the Salmon Fest, which, if you're talking about hippies, I was the straightest-looking person there. People looked at me and thought I was a cop. We did this show in Iowa with Ziggy Marley, except we actually played on the hill outside the stadium while he was playing."
So, playing close enough to Ziggy Marley to suck down secondhand smoke is a plus, as is playing any concert named after a fish. But ripping through fifty songs -- three-hour set notwithstanding -- is pure punk. What's more, instead of saying "free your minds, dudes," packing its getaway raft and letting its freak sails soar, the band honors its obligations to its label, a professional move that deletes it from the ranks of revolutionary renegades.
Perhaps Split Lip Rayfield became a hippie favorite because in an increasingly specialized music industry, mini-Woodstocks such as Bonnaroo in Tennessee, which starred indie-darlings Sonic Youth and My Morning Jacket alongside expected attractions such as the Dead and Keller Williams, have become the last bastion for multigenre mingling. Split Lip would inspire mass conversions at Bonnaroo, much as it has at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where local fun-seekers and next-big-thing scouts gather to bask in the warmth of its smoldering sets. By contrast, the band can't even score a main-stage spot at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas -- an event that ostensibly caters to any and all acoustic comers.
"They decided we were not family-oriented enough, which was bullshit," Gottstine says. "I'm a dad, and our songs aren't so incredibly ridiculous that kids shouldn't hear them. We play on the unsanctioned stage there but not the main festival seating. But we still play in front of 1,500 people, so what the hell?"
At this year's Walnut Valley Festival (September 18-21), Split Lip will unveil a dozen or more unreleased tracks, the bulk of which will end up on a full-length album that's scheduled for 2004. A stopgap 7-inch for the fall is also in the works. Gottstine, who wrote and practiced regularly during the band's yearlong hiatus, has already completed his contributions.
"Lyrically, I was really careful this time," he says. "I labored over each line. I did a murder song, a country shoot-'em-up cowboy song and a couple love songs, but I didn't do a drinking song this go-around."
Gottstine looks forward to test driving the new numbers in front of rowdy and receptive regional crowds, regardless of their composition. "Everyone's a hippie to me," he says.