Son, Ambulance: Black Sheep Squadron
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: Feb. 16, 2005
Feb. 18, 7 p.m.
Joslyn Art Museum
2200 Dodge St.
Students with a current college ID are admitted free for this
College Night event; general admission is $6.
Want to read about the origins of Son, Ambulance? Check out
the Feb 2001
Last year was a banner year for Saddle Creek Records.
The label enjoyed its most prolific period, with major releases
by The Faint, The Good Life and two chart-topping singles by Bright
Eyes that would be a prelude to the band's two full-length releases,
the first ever Creek CDs to crack Billboard's top 20.
Meanwhile, amidst all the excitement and national
notoriety, Saddle Creek quietly released what was arguably one of
the label's best albums of '04, Son, Ambulance's Key, with
little or no fanfare. There was no CD release show, no major U.S.
tour, certainly no stories in Rolling Stone or the New
The lack of limelight was nothing new for Son, Ambulance, which
has been Saddle Creek's most under-the-radar band since their label
debut, 2001's Oh Holy Fools -- a split-release with an emerging
Son, Ambulance frontman Joe Knapp was mum when asked about his
black sheep status at the label. On an unseasonably warm January
evening, he's surrounded by his band -- a rag-tag group of un-tucked
slackers -- on the porch of the Creighton-area house where they
practice. Like a band of brothers, everyone speaks at once, each
throwing in his two cents or finishing the other's sentence. The
discussion centered around their last tour and a drunken gig in
Las Vegas on the 21st birthday of keyboard player Daniel Knapp,
"That was a wild night," Joe says, smiling. "We
drove to California to get to the ocean and watch the sun rise."
"I just decided to get behind the wheel and drive," said
bassist Jesse McKelvey. "By the time everyone woke up, we were
The birthday boy nodded in appreciation. "I had fallen asleep,
obliterated. My ears popped as we drove through the mountains."
As the sun rose over the Pacific, they all fell asleep on the beach.
It would be one of their last carefree moments on that tour. Days
later, the broken-down '87 Chevy conversion van that Joe had bought
for $750 from an alcoholic gambler in Pacific Junction would begin
to die piece by piece, beginning with the transmission in Oregon,
forcing them to drive to Seattle in second gear. Afterward, the
engine blew a seal and began "vomiting oil" before its
last gasp somewhere along an Idaho interstate. They were saved by
tour mates, Boston band Victory at Sea. At the very least, the experience
made for a good story.
Rounded out by guitarist Dylan Strimple
and drummer Corey Broman (who fortunately wasn't along for the West
Coast disaster) Son, Ambulance performs some of the most unrelenting
and uncompromising music ever to come out of Omaha. How do they
make it work? "It's like going for a jog," Joe says. "You
just run and run and never stop."
Key is a departure from Son, Ambulance's restrained, folky
debut full-length -- 2001's Euphemystic -- thanks to the
relentless urgency of its music. Knapp's psychedelic ballads pound
ever forward on Broman's double-tap backbeats, Daniel Knapp's ringing
music-box keyboards and Joe's breathy, pleading vocals that desperately
try to convince us that everything will make sense if we just pay
attention. Songs like the 7-minute "Sex in C Minor" and
arch, dreamy "Chlorophyll" ruthlessly pedal forward, climbing
steadily up a long hill with no peak in sight.
All that tension is balanced by laidback piano ballads like the
Procol Harum-sounding "Case of You/Wrinkle, Wrinkle,"
the mournful "If I Should Fall Asleep" with its Scottish
highland violin intro, and the honky-tonkin' rocker, "Taxi
Cab Driver," complete with a scorching blues guitar lick that
would make Keith Richards blush.
The CD is launched by the dense, echoing opener, "Paper Snowflakes,"
a track that captures all of the band's best elements and rolls
them into one tune that channels '70s FM rock radio in all its brazen
majesty. Despite the critics' constant comparisons to Bright Eyes,
Key and Son, Ambulance sound like nothing else on Saddle
Creek's varied roster.
like going for a jog. You just run and run and never stop."
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Creek is kind of like a big family, and in some ways we're
more of a distant cousin."
Days after our porch discussion,
Joe Knapp was more forthcoming when we talked privately via phone
from his parents' home in Ponca Hills, where he was spending time
with his son, Neal, who inspired some of the music on the new album.
Knapp doesn't so much see Son, Ambulance as the label's black sheep
as much as the last remaining under-the-radar act that continues
to struggle for attention while the rest of the Creek bands bask
in a glow of appreciation.
"Saddle Creek is kind of like a big family, and in some ways
we're more of a distant cousin," he said. "At least it
feels that way. They appreciate our work and the music, but don't
give us a lot of help, really, other than, you know, great distribution
and some help promoting the album. They're getting used to Bright
Eyes going gold. Why waste their time with us?"
But he quickly added that "that's all business stuff."
"That's not what we're in it for. We're in it to make quality
music and to express my soul to people. Our fans appreciate us,
and that makes me realize that I'm touching people and being understood
for what I do. In a sense, we belong on Saddle Creek because we're
a true underground kind of band."
Maybe too underground. With a European tour slated for this spring,
the band is struggling to merely acquire better equipment so that
they can sound as good live as they do on disc. On top of that,
Knapp says it's time that they find a manager to take care of their
day-to-day business. "Conor (Oberst) has a manager to turn
down offers," Knapp says. "In our case, we need someone
to find things for us and raise interest in us."
Should that happen, and should Key ever find a larger audience,
Knapp says he could see Son, Ambulance go from being a part-time
gig to a full-time job. Today he splits his time between the band,
taking classes at UNO and working at Liberty Elementary School.
"I could see it being a bigger part of my life," he said.
"I feel like it's not ready to die yet, you know? I could see
us doing this years from now, just quietly doing our thing."
Published in The Omaha Reader Feb. 16, 2005.
Copyright © 2005 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.