Over the past half-century, the electric guitar has branched in a profusion of sonic paths, from the primal scream of metal to the effects-saturated jangle of U2's the Edge to the softer-edged timbres of Bill Frisell.
Brooklyn's Stephen Ulrich, whose trio Big Lazy plays at Poe's Pub on May 17, embraces the twang, hewing closer to the elemental, echoey, blues-burnished root timbre of the old school electric guitar. "Someone once played me a huge compliment," Ulrich says. "They said, 'I love your playing. You don't sound like Jimi Hendrix."
Ulrich's long career is at odds with Hendrix's famous words on the apocalyptic "Third Stone from the Sun": "You'll never hear surf music again."
"My playing does have an element of rockabilly and surf to it," Ulrich says. "I used to try to wiggle out of that label. Now I just embrace anybody who likes the music. It has taken a lot of effort to keep the tone and maybe find something deeper in it."
Big Lazy's albums are at once diverse and unitary, with solid and varied songwriting along with the occasional surprising cover, strong bass lines, and crisp imaginative drumming. There are also choice guests filling out the trio sound, notably ex-Tom Waits guitarist Mark Ribot on the band's next CD, "Dear Trouble," due from Tasankee Records in October. But even more appealingly for local audiences is the guest appearance of Bio Ritmo and Miramar keyboard wizard Marlysse Rose Simmons.
"I had the Miramar album [playing] a lot," says Ulrich. "Then I saw them playing at Barbés Brooklyn, my home base. She's the one. I love her tone and her touch and her musical mind. She's got this space-age vibe; it's cool for that tune." Simmons will sit in with the band for a few songs at Poe's.
Another Richmond-connected guest on "Dear Trouble" is great New York slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who plays a polished, retro solo and comps on a rare cover of the Beatles' "Girl." Bernstein, an early mentor of Matthew E. White, was artist-in-residence for Fight the Big Bull's 2010 "All is Gladness in the Kingdom," a record whose acclaim was foundational for the Richmond scene.
But the center of the sound is Ulrich's cinematic, shadowy and gleaming guitar sound. "I do have a couple of pedals, but I play with very few effects," he explains. "I feel like the tone is in your body and your hands. You should be able to have the guitar sound good when it is not plugged in. It should have a natural resonance."
The touch of organic aural grime comes honestly: "I have a lot of old amps. If I want distortion, I put things through a 1940s tape recorder that has a natural grit that fits the music," he says.
Ulrich, also a film composer, notably for HBO's noir comedy "Bored to Death," cites the band's key influences as "Elmore and Elmer." Elmore for Elmore Leonard, the literary pulp author of "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Rum Punch" and Elmer is film composer Elmer Bernstein. "He wrote the claustrophobic East Coast jazz of 'The Man with the Golden Arm,' and the big sky soundtrack of 'The Magnificent Seven," Ulrich says. "Two classic American forms, the detective story and the Western."
The Big Lazy trio also features drummer Yuval Lion, known for work with David Byrne and Cibo Matto, and bassist Andrew Hall from Sparklehorse is ideal for an intimate space like Poe's Pub.
"We have a long history with Richmond and a lot of fans," Ulrich says, "But I've always done better in hole-in-the-wall places. Once we ventured out into a bigger venue, and it snowed that night. Almost no one showed up. Only a couple of inches, not much for us, but people were going crazy."
And when everything comes together?
"The best gigs, with a full house and a happy crowd, are transformative. The music is super-emotional, an out of body experience. I leave the stage feeling like 'where was I for the last hour?' But even when I think we've had a clunker night, sometimes someone will come up and say how great it was. Whatever we feel about it, the music has a certain quality."
Big Lazy hits the stage at Poe's Pub on Friday, May 17, at 9 p.m. Admission costs $10. 2706 E. Main St.