Cincinnati CityBeat June 2009
A good band reflects its collective influences, a great band transcends them. Denim Road folds its members’ long musical histories into a hybridized synthesis of sounds they love and sounds they’ve already made. As a result, the sextet’s eponymous debut exudes a soulful Pop vibe that is comfortably, classically familiar, like an album you’ve heard a hundred times the first time through.
“If you’ve got half an hour, I can tell you why that is,” says keyboardist Gary Grawe over beers on the Back Porch Saloon patio.
Technical explanations aside, Denim Road lays down a groove with their original material that stands shoulder to shoulder with the bands they cover — the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Joe Cocker and Hall and Oates, among others. The long résumés of DR’s journeymen members highlight their incredible diversity: Lead vocalist George Harp fronted Prog/Pop outfit Starcastle for seven years and guitarist Jim Zuzow and bassist Robbie Lewis have played for uncountable area Rock, Blues and show bands. Percussionist Craig Ballard has been in the local scene for four decades, notably with Ray Peterson and Mad Lydia & Cincinnati Joe, while drummer Kevin Ross kept the beat for I.C. Hot, the original Warsaw Falcons and Top 40 band Heroes. New keyboardist Grawe has been a band member and solo artist for around 40 years.
“None of us have ever really had a conflict in the band,” Zuzow says. “George and I have been together 11 years, Robbie’s been here eight. We’re like family.”
“We go to graduations, Christmas parties, birthday parties, whatever,” Lewis says. “We’re that tight.”
Zuzow and Harp co-founded Soul’d Out in the late ’90s, and as gigs accrued and the lineup evolved (Lewis signed on eight years ago, Ballard followed within months, Ross joined in 2007 and Grawe last summer), Zuzow felt confident taking their originals into the studio. As the process began, a quick Web check revealed dozens of bands that claimed the name Soul’d Out. To avoid legalities, they rechristened themselves.
“We have a song called ‘Denim Road’ and our producer (Larry Goshorn) said, ‘What about the name Denim Road?’ ” Zuzow says. “We kicked it around and couldn’t come up with anything better so we stuck with Denim Road.”
The band started recording more than two years ago, scrapping half an album’s worth of material and starting over with the addition of Ross, who Harp calls “our human metronome.”
“You have to wrap it up to experience,” Harp says. “We spent a lot of money and time, but you learn from the bumps as well as the glides.”
“If you don’t have a foundation to build on — and I’m talking about a drummer — you’re dead in the water,” Zuzow says. “Kevin came in and laid down four songs in two hours and we knew we could move forward at a higher level.”
The band’s song “Law of Attraction” became the yard stick to judge drummers by, and Ross sailed through the gauntlet.
“There were no tapes and they said to me, ‘We’ve got this song, it goes like this, play like Terry Bozzio,’ and I said, ‘I can’t play like Terry Bozzio,’ ” recalls Ross. “But they were like, ‘It’s got this verse and bridge and these changes, just go crazy.’ It was a cool song.”
Denim Road is clearly a band that succeeds on its members’ chemistry. As each piece of the band’s puzzle has fallen into place, their sonic picture has become more focused. With Grawe’s arrival — his work doesn’t appear on the CD but can be heard on new tracks posted at www.denimroad.net — the last important component is in place.
“We looked for 10 years for the right keyboardist,” Zuzow says. “Somebody that fit the band and had an understanding. Gary really filled that perfectly.”
“As you get older, you look for that one thing that’s going to keep you interested and prolong your musical ambition,” Grawe says. “When you start in 1964, you either keep the fire burning or the fire burns out. Jim’s music, no pun intended, really struck a chord with me because I just really like it. And everything gets better and better. Jim allows everybody in the band to have input into his music, which is, to me personally, a wonderful blessing.”
Zuzow is Denim Road’s primary songwriter and he’s assembled the perfect group to shape and present his material.
“He’s a songwriting machine,” Lewis says with a laugh. And giving props to Ballard, the lone member absent for the interview, Lewis notes, “He’s the wild card. We’ve tried to play without him when he’s out of town and it’s not the same.”
With disparate backgrounds and experiences, Denim Road converges to interpret, flavor and enhance Zuzow’s music, whether in studio or on stage. It’s obviously a joyful process. Food metaphors creep into the musical discussion; Harp describes Ballard as “a Cajun spice” and Zuzow picks up the thread.
“A band is like stew,” he says. “Whatever you have in the refrigerator, you put in there and whatever the ingredients are, it comes out to be what it is. Personally, I feel like we have ingredients that work. Everybody has different influences but we’re all headed in the same direction. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14, and just to have six people like this at the same time creating at a high level is almost its own reward.”
Denim Road – Denim Road
2008, Denim Road
If you’re looking for a great mix of classic rock, R&B and classic Motown sounds, all wrapped up into something familiar yet refreshing, then follow Denim Road into their home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. A six-piece band with more musical experience than you can shake a stick at; Denim Road melds new sounds out of old, classic ones and captivates audiences along the way. Whether it’s playing covers or original material, Denim Road finds a little bit of magic every time they pick up their instruments. The band formerly known as Soul’d Out has been around for eight years. Guitarist/chief songwriter Jim Zuzow and vocalist George Harp have been the core of the band since its inception and they have surrounded themselves with some seriously talented folks. George Harp was the vocalist for the second incarnation of Starcastle in the early-to-mid 1980’s. Percussionist Craig Ballard has more than four decades under his belt in the music business, getting his start with Cincy favorites Cincinnati Joe & Mad Lydia. Kevin Ross (drums) has done time with I.C. Hot and Warsaw Falcons. Rounding out the band are Gary Grawe (keys/vox); Robbie Lewis (bass/vox) and the inestimable Jim Zuzow on guitar. In 2008, the band finally released their debut CD, Denim Road.
Denim Road are strongly influenced by the Motown sound, from soulful vocals to quasi-STAX style horn arrangements, there’s no doubt to what era and sound Denim Road pay homage. Sweet Soul Revival kicks things off with a Morris Day moment, and then an interesting thing happens. While the style and lead vocals are strongly influenced by Motown, Denim Road’s vocal mix comes across sounding like classic Journey. Listen to the harmony vocals on songs like Ready To Fall, Blue Highway and Follow Your Dream, and then go listen to Journey’s Wheel In The Sky. It’s a bit uncanny how much they sound alike. Probably my favorite song on the CD is the title track, Denim Road. This is classic 1970’s funk/soul at its best. Perfect Heart is also a pleasurable listen, with Latin Jazz guitar styling in an intensely melodic musical setting. Other highlights include Talk To Me and Burbank’s Blues.
Denim Road are a classic cover/party band who have transitioned to writing and performing their own music. Vestiges of the party band live on in their sound, and at times the listener isn’t sure whether the unusual hybrid of styles/sounds is simply Denim Road’s musical identity or left over vestiges of cover songs past. What is clear is that Denim Road has a very unique sound that shows real signs of having melded into something entirely its own. Denim Road is definitely worth a listen.
Cincinnati CityBeat January 2011
After nearly a decade of lucrative gigs as the primarily cover band Soul’d Out, guitarist/songwriter Jim Zuzow decided it was time to cast his fate with his original compositions, christened the band Denim Road (after one of his originals) and embarked on a new chapter in his long professional career. Denim Road’s eponymous 2009 debut was a showcase for the longstanding Cincinnati-area band, an engagingly smooth and razor sharp evocation of the Classic Rock giants that had once populated the band’s cover sets, from the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan to Santana and Hall & Oates.
On their sophomore album, Back to Mexico, Denim Road largely follows the blueprint of its debut, from producer Larry Goshorn’s expert ability to blend and highlight Denim Road’s substantial gifts to a smattering of talented guests in the wings to Zuzow’s spot-on translational modern-day Classic Rock compositions. Denim Road is powered by solid performances from journeymen with chops galore, from vocalist George Harp’s Huey Lewis-to-Steve Perry Soul/Pop range and Zuzow’s elastic guitar personality to keyboardist Gary Grawe’s Jazz cool/Rock hot accents and the perfect heartbeat provided by the malleable rhythm section of bassist Robbie Lewis, percussionist Craig Ballard and drummer Kevin Ross.
On Back to Mexico, Denim Road once again displays a mastery of Doobie Brothers Blues Rock power (“Running Blind”), Steely Dan’s late-night coffeehouse Jazz (“Cafe Blue”), Santana’s cool Pop explorations (“Long Way from Home”) and The Eagles’ Pop balladeering (“Without Love”), executed by a group of musicians that work together with the precision and artistry of a Swiss watch. Words like “slick” and “polished” are clearly appropriate adjectives for Denim Road, but only in the most positive light. The technically proficient band is gnat’s-ass tight and never use studio gloss to mask musical deficiencies, but use it to buff their sound to a rich, mellow glow.
For fans of Classic Rock that have tired of hearing the same old tunes, Denim Road offers a soundtrack that is sublimely familiar and refreshingly original.
Cincinnati CityBeat February 2014
The combined musical experience of the members of the Denim Road Band easily eclipses the century-and-a-half mark and encompasses every conceivable type of band and genre of music; local show/dance/cover outfits to nationally recognized entities playing Classic Rock, Blues, R&B, Jazz, Fusion, Top 40 Country, Funk and everything between and beyond.
DRB's sense of history and classicism invests their original material with the same soulful expanse and crisp Pop approach of the defining bands (The Doobie Brothers, Hall & Oates, Santana, Steely Dan) that have provided DRB with inspiration and a template for success.
There is certainly a formula to what the Denim Road Band does live and in the studio, but there's a huge difference between having a formula and being formulaic. On their third album, the silky smooth Blame It On the Stars, DRB hits the same markers as its previous discs (DRB's eponymous 2009 debut, 2010's Back to Mexico), utilizing George Harp's crystalline-yet-earthy vocal range, Craig Ballard's sinewy percussion and the almost impossibly adaptable journeymen rhythm section of bassist Robbie Lewis and drummer Kevin Ross to maximum groove effect.
Woven within that tightly knit fabric is the impeccable guitar work of Jim Zuzow, who channels everyone from Tom Johnston to Walter Becker to Steve Miller to the guitar legacies of the Eagles and Santana, creating a sound that is reminiscent of past Classic Rock glories but delights in advancing the flag a little farther up the hill. Denim Road Band sets up shop at the corner of passion and professionalism and delivers the sophisticated goods with a showman's flair and a fan's devotion.
Cincinnati CityBeat October 2017
At the other end of the spectrum is Denim Road, a band of veteran musicians led by longtime local singer/songwriter Jim Zuzow, who was active as a solo act back in the early ’80s. Working for nearly two decades, Zuzow and Denim Road finally documented their rootsy, soulful Pop/Rock sound on their self-titled 2008 debut.
The band’s latest, Harlan County Line, is Denim Road’s third to feature the lineup of Zuzow on guitars (he also writes the music and lyrics), vocalist George Harp, keyboardist Gary Grawe (he joined before DR's sophomore album, 2010's Back to Mexico), bassist Robbie Lewis, percussionist/background vocalist Craig Ballard and drummer Kevin Ross. The four-year wait for the follow-up to 2013 Blame It On the Stars isn't because Zuzow is a sonic experimentalist or a restless creative soul looking for new inspiration. He's a flawlessly reliable songwriter who operates in a familiar wheelhouse of Folk, Country, Pop, Rock and Blues in distinctively different measures.
Part of Denim Road's successful formula is the chemistry that exists between all the band's members and the amazing amount of collective experience they bring to the studio and stage. That experience is clear from the opening strains of the album's lead-off track/title song, which motors along on a loping guitar line with a sweet slide accompaniment and an expansive B3 charge reminiscent of Tom Johnston and the Doobie Brothers.
"The Things I Can't Change" slinks along with noir-ish intent and wouldn't sound out of place in a Chris Isaak set list, while "Fool the Fool" and "Crazy in Love" once again display Zuzow's estimable guitar skills, as he effortlessly references the likes of Tom Johnston and Randy Bachman, and "Hard Livin'" bounces and bops with Nawlins passion like vintage Little Feat. All of this is characterized by Denim Road's patented dynamism, with the rockier numbers punctuated by the Folk lilt of "You Stopped Loving Me" and the nocturnal Jazz nod of "After Hours" to provide engaging respite.
Denim Road crafts mature and melodic Rock with a broad range of influences and a century-and-and-a-half of practical experience. As George Burns once noted — everybody has to get older, but nobody has to get old.