For Charlotte-born singer-songwriter Joe Firstman, it's been quite a long, strange trip. The multi-instrumentalist started out his career on major label Atlantic Records just as the industry was beginning to nosedive. The rambunctious 23-year-old had the makings of a more marketable and pop-rock-savvy Ryan Adams, the execs thought, but the deal eventually fizzled after just a few releases.
Firstman left the label in 2005 to become a bandleader on Last Call with Carson Daly, a gig he would hold for four years before returning to solo work full-time. A slew of independent releases, including one studio and one live release under the Cordovas name in 2011, followed, but it wasn't until this past winter that the now-wizened musician committed to making music on the kind of grand scale that he had in the past. He and his bandmates decamped in Mexico for nearly six weeks, rehearsing relentlessly and honing their sound as they demoed new tunes.
"That band I had when I was on [Atlantic] was the best band I ever had, just because we rehearsed the most," Firstman explains. "All the little details, the transitions in the set, the exactitude of the harmonies — all of that takes a long time to get going, so you really need a committed group to get a band really hot."
And while it would seem from the first Cordovas album that Firstman had long surrounded himself with crackerjack players and impeccable singers capable of meeting his demands, it's not quite true.
"Even on that first Cordovas record, we just got everybody together with the ultimate goal of making one record and doing one tour," he admits. "This new band — I really wanted to make sure everybody had their priorities right and was deeply committed and really in it for the long haul."
The musical core of that earlier iteration remains though — loose-limbed roots-rock that conjures up the funky swing of the Band at its most rollicking, the jam rock-meets-Americana mysticism of the Grateful Dead, and the close-hewn country-rock harmonies of the Jayhawks are all prominent.
"The Dead is our best model, really," says Firstman. "We want to be in the jam band festival world playing a different set every night. We want to be able to play transitions between songs and not be constrained by the same set each night. We can play and improvise, but at the same time we want the songs to lead the way."
What will obviously set the group apart is their commitment to serious and occasionally elaborate three-part harmonies that they spent so many hours in Mexico working out.
"We didn't want to show back up in Nashville this spring still getting it together," Firstman says of the retreat. "We wanted to have a lot of the cobwebs and a lot of the growing pains and kinks worked out. The singing was something we've really taken the most time to get right. My mom is an opera singer and Johnny [Loyd, pianist] is a trained singer — Lucca was the one who was a little more green. He hadn't sung three-part harmonies that much in his life, so it's something we really study, even now. We'll record shows on the road and ultra-critique them in the van the next day — refine and refine it every day."
And to their credit, it's easy to hear the echoes of some of the all-time great roots-rock singing groups in the band's songs. Firstman name-checks the Flying Burrito Brothers, Bill Monroe, and the Band, but echoes of everything from the easygoing folk-pop of the Byrds to the ragtag rambunctiousness of Uncle Tupelo are apparent in their approach.
The band's commitment to vocal interplay was part of the reason they enlisted Kenneth Pattengale to produce their debut LP, which will be out later this fall. Pattengale is one-half of the folk duo the Milk Carton Kids, a group that has seen great success making pretty, fragile folk music sung exclusively with haunting two-part harmonies.
"Kenneth noticed that we could sing right away," Firstman recalls. "What he was doing was just getting us to simplify the melody. Do you really need the trill in there? The harmony is gonna lay better if you simplify those notes.' That's what he was getting into, just a little spot-check here and there. It didn't need to be so complex if three people were doing it, or maybe it would be better with only one voice."
Despite his already sizable and diverse career, the excitement about where the Cordovas are going is clear from Firstman's voice. That, and the fact that Charleston is the last date on the group's tour.
"My mom used to play [Piccolo] Spoleto when I was a kid," he says. "I have fond memories of coming down with a fake ID and raging in Charleston."