Split Lip lives up to tough name

Power trio from Kansas to play at the Abby Theatre

Wayne Gottstine (mandolin), Jeff Eaton (one-string, gas-tank bass) and Eric Mardis (banjo) are Split Lip Rayfield. Local bands Farmington Hill and Waiting on Trial will open for the trio. Enlarge photo

Ryan Hendrix/Courtesy of Split Lip Rayfield

Wayne Gottstine (mandolin), Jeff Eaton (one-string, gas-tank bass) and Eric Mardis (banjo) are Split Lip Rayfield. Local bands Farmington Hill and Waiting on Trial will open for the trio.

Talent isn’t always enough to make it in the music business; bands also must be resilient.

Success comes from the ability to take some shots, be they poor record sales, personal tragedy or bad reviews. In this Darwinistic universe, some bands buckle (many deservedly so) while others persevere.

The Kansas acoustic rock trio Split Lip Rayfield epitomizes that resilient spirit. It has soldiered on after the death of a member, (which is tough to spare when you’ve got only three) while keeping its legions of diehard fans satisfied and continuing to make the music that made people fall in love with it in the first place.

As fans of all-things rock, country, punk and bluegrass, Split Lip Rayfield is an appealing assault of acoustic sound that gives any band with Marshall Stacks a run for its money. And all made by a bunch of dudes that carry zero rock-star attitude and deliver a rock show without rock-show hype. It is honest music from the Midwest made for the love of making music.

Split Lip will return to Durango tonight at the Abbey Theatre. Opening the show is Waiting on Trial and Farmington Hill. Split Lip Rayfield is Wayne Gottstine on mandolin, guitar and vocals, Eric Mardis on banjo, guitar and vocals and Jeff Eaton on the gas-tank, one-string bass.

When founding member Kirk Rundstrom died from cancer five years ago after a valiant and well-publicized fight, it was questionable if Split Lip Rayfield could or would go on. And it has. It has toured relentlessly, released a record, and there’s another on the way that will be produced in its beloved home state.

“We’re into the idea of location. I’d like to do that Led Zeppelin thing and rent Aleister Crowley’s house to record or some creepy old mansion, but we don’t have the budget for that,” said Mardis last month from his Kansas home. “So we’ll stick with homegrown. There’s a lot of talented people around here engineering-wise, so we’ll tap somebody like that and get the best, most-relaxed recording we can. I mean relaxed to an extent, so there’s not any outer stress. A lot of the songs won’t necessarily be relaxed. There’s a little bit of frenetic energy that needs to happen on a record, and we try to mix it up with some ballady stuff, a waltz or two on there and some thrashing death grass or whatever the heck people like to call it.”

That frenetic energy happens on the stage, too. The trio rips through one song after the other, songs that clock in at speed-metal tempos. Fans who saw Split Lip Rayfield before Rundstrom’s death, and then the first shows post-passing, may have noticed that the band may have missed their old friend but didn’t miss a beat. Mardis believes they’re finally growing comfortable after moving on one member less.

“There was a period, and it lasted kind of a while, of not being completely sure of ourselves because we were flying this missing-man formation and figuring out how to be the three-piece without Kirk,” Mardis said. “Things keep moving and getting bigger, and the offers we’re getting are kind of crazy.”

Split Lip’s popularity is growing, too. Appearances at high-profile festivals, bills with other bands, and a documentary about its last tour with its lost member have aided in the growth of its audience.

“The thing that’s really reassuring about it, and lets us know that we’re on the right path, is how many new people keep showing up,” Mardis said. “We keep meeting new fans at these shows. So we continue to make fresh-faced new fans, then you know you’re not becoming a tribute band to yourself. That builds a lot of confidence.”

Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu. Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager.