If independently owned record stores still existed, Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner would be the knowledgeable clerk standing in front of the sticker-strewn counter with mountains of used CDs scattering his work station beneath the dim, yellowed lights. However, as opposed to being bitter and condescending, he’s incredibly enlightened and has more than two decades’ worth of tenure touring and recording a kaleidoscope of music.
When he takes the stage at the Elk Creek Café on Oct. 27, he will brings with him the experience of 1,000 musical souls with the mileage to back it up. After spending time studying Indian music on the slide guitar in Calcutta, Brenner is ready to mix it up, drawing from an eclectic array of influences and an immense catalogue of collaboration.
“I’ve been dabbling in it for the past seven or eight years, and I finally got to go to Calcutta this past Christmas to study with my teacher, this very famous Indian slide guitar player,” Brenner said. “I stayed at his school for a month and studied and started recording a record over there. I’m working on that now and it probably won’t be out until after the new year, but it’s going really well.”
Despite the Indian-centric influences, Brenner’s set with John Train will predominantly revel in the fantastic dirtiness that is folksy bluegrass.
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Although he hails from Philadelphia, which isn’t exactly known for being a bluegrass hotbed, Brenner and John Train are able to transport both themselves and audiences to the rustic isolation that is rural Appalachia.
“I’ve just always gravitated towards those sounds,” Brenner said while discussing his affinity for acoustic and twang. “If it was just a straight, traditional country or bluegrass band, I don’t know if it would have lasted as long as it has, because despite the fact that we use acoustic, twangy and rustic instruments, our tastes are pretty varied.”
Having gotten together in 1995 and choosing the name John Train, a Phil Ochs’ pseudonym from the 1960s and ’70s, Brenner and frontman Jon Houlon struck a Lennon-McCartney-esque working relationship and began playing in and around Philadelphia culminating with the release of their first cassette, “All of Your Stories,” in early 1996.
“We started performing as a duo and then over the last fifteen years or so, we’ve grown into a six piece band,” Brenner said. “My career in a microcosm is just kind of following these interests, be it bluegrass, dobro or playing lap-steel.”
Brenner also dabbled as a session musician and a music writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Weekly before fully immersing himself into the lifestyle that he once wrote about.
It’s this cornucopia and collusion that makes Brenner and John Train so interesting and fascinating to listen to. The musicians are able to pull pieces from all over the musical map while creating a final product that, while certainly having a defined category is also able to simultaneously suggest and acknowledge all of the ingredients that went into its construction.
“Musicians and people into music by nature don’t want to have the same meal every night, it’s going to shift,” Brenner said. “For a while it’s very satisfying to get into one thing, but it’s just natural to want to gravitate to a polar opposite, you’re going to seek something else out.”