DECATUR — Decatur plays host to the occasional traveling act at its music venues, but rarely does a specific group or performer from outside the state visit the city on a regular basis.
That’s what makes Justin Torres so unique. The St. Louis musician’s repeated visits to Decatur over the past year have made him an unlikely local favorite in two separate music groups. In addition to his solo “Justin Torres Loop Project” performances at Donnie’s Homespun Pizza, he is now bringing a contrasting progressive bluegrass band Clusterpluck to town in a return engagement.
“We’ve been really fortunate to hook up with everyone at Donnie’s, to have a place to play in Decatur like this,” said Torres, who will appear with Clusterpluck tonight at the bar/pizza restaurant. “They appreciate original music and provide a space for it. It can be hard for local original music and for young bands, and a place like that is so valuable. We’re not even from the area, so we especially appreciate it, and we don’t mind the travel one bit.”
The two-year-old band is quite a different group from Torres’ “loop project,” which styles itself as an ongoing experiment in sound-looping and hypnotic rock music. Clusterpluck is instead firmly within the “newgrass” sub-genre of bluegrass music, the fusion of old-time bluegrass with other genres such as pop, jazz and world music. In the past summer, they’ve performed around the Illinois festival circuit with big-name acts in their field such as Yonder Mountain String Band and Del McCoury.
“We always look back toward traditional bluegrass and greats like Del McCoury, but we think the newgrass style is a great thing,” Torres said. “I honestly think that bands like Yonder Mountain or Dirtfoot have helped progressive music become more acceptable and appreciated. Our band is all about creativity. All four of us are songwriters and there are always ideas bouncing around.”
Those four members of Clusterpluck come packing an array of traditional instruments, but consider their baseline to be guitar, mandolin, banjo and washboard — electronically amplified washboard with volume and distortion pedals, atypical for this or any genre. But a tiny bit of the unusual is a hallmark of sorts for the original music that Clusterpluck prefers.
“We try to base our whole set around originals and even with the covers, we don’t do them the way the original band would do them,” Torres said. “It always ends up sounding like Clusterpluck. We do a lot of swapping of instruments, from guitar to mando to dobro, while maintaining four-part harmony. There’s a lot going on.”
Each member, according to Torres, brings his or her own specific touch to the writing process in particular. Where one member writes songs of a particular style, another member contrasts them with a song of his own.
“Chris writes a lot of love songs, and Derek writes excellent songs about day-to-day life,” Torres said. “I try to keep it upbeat and write positive material. We just finished recording our first CD together and things just seem to be moving faster and faster.”
Ultimately, Clusterpluck may have the best of both worlds — a base in a major urban center like St. Louis, but also a reliable, “home away from home” in Decatur. Either way, Torres is enjoying himself each time either of his bands make their way up to Central Illinois.
“Really, as long as everyone is happy and feeling the groove, we finish our show and feel like 20 minutes has gone by, and it’s been three hours,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”