Smokey, smooth and sweet: Actual Wolf’s ‘Itasca’

"Itasca," the new album by Actual Wolf

“Itasca,” the new album by Actual Wolf

Eric Pollard is a Grand Rapids, Minnesota, boy better known by the name he shares with his stage persona, band and ethos: Actual Wolf. A few years back, he emerged from behind the drum kit to become a front man and accomplished songwriter. Listening to him was to hear to a wolf trying on sound; a vocal chameleon who could effortlessly channel Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Bob Dylan or a nameless country music singer drifting in on an AM signal. There wasn’t any doubt this guy could sing, write or play — you just didn’t know where it was going to go.

Last year, Pollard left the Minnesota scene where he had just begun to make a mark to go to Nashville. On his way south he told folks he was going to make an album called Itasca, named for the county where he grew up — a land of 1,000 of Minnesota’s “10,000 Lakes,” tall pines, scrub brush and red dirt on the edge of town. Actual Wolf went all the way to the Country Music Capital of the USA to make an album that is required listening for a lonely late night drive up Highway 38 to Bigfork.

The Nashville sound starts immediately in “Give Me Your Gun,” a sad western ballad set in a cold Minnesota backdrop. Featuring Haley Bonar, Pollard’s voice croons with a hint of Willie Nelson.

The single is “Thinkin’ of You,” the album’s bounciest tune which still epitomizes the mellow blend of “Itasca” with just the right country reverb on the drumbeat.

“Family” describes the dynamic of working class folks in the blue collar towns of Itasca County and the Iron Range, arguably the sweetest song on the tape because it’s hard to grow up here not knowing what this one’s about.

I liked “This Ole Way,” describing life at the end of your rope, looking at the hard road back. “The Queen of Carolina” is another lovely tune, an ode to musical gal you’d sure like to meet, but that you’d worry would slip away from you in the crowd until you saw her on the big TV show next week.

“Itasca” is country rock, but not the kind of country you usual hear on the radio. It’s wintery, with pine needles and skates. And while Actual Wolf is promising another album this year, attempting to keep up the Bob Dylan 1965 pace, this man and his band have given us something to keep us cool all summer.

Actual Wolf will drop “Itasca” with a highly unique “Cassette Release Party” Wednesday, April 29 at the Turf Club in St. Paul before heading back north for the renowned Duluth Homegrown Music Festival, which also starts this week.

During a recent interview on Northern Community Radio, Actual Wolf said the reason he put this out on cassette (in addition to CD and digital release, of course) was that it was Northern Minnesota music for Northern Minnesota people, many of whom still have tape decks in their cars. That’s truth, and I can’t think of music I’ve heard so far this year that would sound better with moonshadows on a county highway, Northern Lights dancing on the windshield.

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