"It's better to burn out than fade away," goes Neil Young's immortal line. But what if you do both? Burlap to Cashmere seem to have managed it, and now, after a decade-long break, they're rising from the ashes to play another day. Thank God!
The New York City-based band exploded onto the Christian music scene in 1998 with their major-label debut, Anybody Out There?, which introduced a band that didn't play by the rules. Heck, they didn't seem to know there were rules. For example, during a showcase for an industry crowd at a hotel ballroom in downtown Nashville, guitarist Johnny Philippidis was so into his performance that he removed his shirt mid-song and jumped onto a banquet table in nothing but a sweat-drenched undershirt. Sure, it's tame by rock 'n' roll standards, but let's just say Christian music doesn't usually involve a lot of disrobing or jumping on tables.
"We were just young," frontman Steven Delopoulos says now. "We didn't think about if we fit or not. We took it moment by moment. We were just happy that people liked us. Any attention was good attention."
Anyone Out There? took Rock Album of the Year honors at the Dove Awards that year, but these Brooklyn and Jersey boys were still in a class by themselves. It was their playing that really set them apart. The seven-piece band melded Greek and Mediterranean rhythms with poetic lyrics, creating something that sounded completely fresh and new no small feat in the music world. They paired that unique sound with youthful enthusiasm and endless touring, until, predictably, they just burned out.
Then came the fading away. Everyone went their separate ways in 2001, with Delopoulos relocating to Nashville and pursuing a solo career (including 2003's Me Died Blue). Cousins Delopoulos and Philippidis would still play together occasionally as a duo, billed simply as Steven and Johnny, but Burlap was dead, and no one (except the fans) seemed interested in reviving it.
Then tragedy struck in 2005, when Philippidis was nearly beaten to death following a "road rage" incident near his Brooklyn home. He was in a coma for a month, clinging to life. When he emerged, physical therapy and facial reconstructive surgery were bigger priorities than his music career, but eventually he picked up a guitar again and was relieved when the skill he spent years perfecting slowly began to return. The incident led the founding duo to realize that life is fleeting. As a result, getting Burlap back together took on a new urgency. Delopoulos had already moved back to New Jersey, so when original drummer Theodore Pagano returned from living in London and signed on, all the pieces fell into place.
Finally, after longtime fans had all but given up hope, Burlap to Cashmere are back. The release of their new self-titled project, produced by Mitchell Froom, marks a new beginning for the band, rounded out by newcomers Todd Caldwell on keys and Chris Anderson on bass. The focus in the studio this time around was not letting the sound get too big. The debut of this leaner five-piece shows a more contained, controlled Burlap. This time around you can more clearly hear the influence of singer-songwriters who inspired a young Delopoulos, names like Cat Stevens, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan; as a whole, the band has ditched the flamenco of a decade ago. Fortunately, the Greek and Mediterranean undertones are still there, balanced by a classic folk-rock sound.
In some ways, the timing of their return couldn't be more perfect. As groups like The Avett Brothers, The Civil Wars and Mumford & Sons put folk back on the pop-culture map, Burlap can slide nicely into that niche. And this time around, there won't be any burning out, because age brings the benefit of some wisdom. "You definitely know what you're getting into," Delopoulos says. "You remember to pack light, stay healthy and eat right on the road. Back then, we just kind of winged it."
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