elkhorn

 photo by Brennan Cavanaugh

Drew Gardner and Jesse Sheppard, the two-guitar duo of Elkhorn, share a musical brotherhood that spans several decades. From their nascent high school socialist-realist post punk band, Mayfirst, to teenage scavenger trips to the Princeton Record Exchange and City Gardens, the two came of age goofing along to the Dead Kennedys, the Butthole Surfers, and Sonic Youth in the dank Jersey/Philly-scene music holes.

After college in the nineties Drew moved off to San Francisco and got deep into the free jazz/energy music scene as a drummer, where he collaborated with John Tchicai among many other heavy hitters. Post-college Jesse was transfixed by the modal excursions of ‘70s electric Miles Davis and the exploratory prognostications of King Crimson and Jimi Hendrix. 

When Drew moved back east in the late ’90s, the two were again in the same place at the same time, and it was only natural to play music together. A few years later Jesse decamped to the Philadelphia suburbs to raise a family and pursue filmmaking, and in the process discovered both American Primitive music—Jack Rose was living in Philly at the time and performing regularly—and his instrument—twelve-string acoustic guitar. Around the same time, Drew picked up the Fender Telecaster again, with an ear toward the extended electric solos of classic rock and a foundation of improvisational practice at his back.

The inherent duality of the band—acoustic/electric, traditional/modern, 12-string/6-string, fingerpicking/plectrum, ostinato/lead—coalesced to create the unified Elkhorn sound. They played their first show in 2013, and put out three official releases over the coming years: Elkhorn (Beyond Beyond is Beyond, 2016), The Black River (Debacle, 2017), and Lionfish (Eiderdown, 2018). East and West coast tours followed.

The duality/non-duality of Elkhorn is ever present in their two new complementary but separate albums: Sun Cycle and Elk Jam. Released simultaneously on Feeding Tube Records in the Spring of 2019, both LPs were recorded over the course of one day and feature the Elkhorn duo fluidly expanded to include two of today’s most exciting players: Willie Lane on third guitar and Ryan Jewell on drums and tabla. Sun Cycle is an album of composed pieces, stately and focused in its architecture. Elk Jam is a series of free-flowing improvised quartet and trio jams, loose and lysergic. Both albums are well-rounded statements, Elkhorn’s strongest work to date, beautifully recorded and mixed by Jason Meagher at Black Dirt Studio. 

Elkhorn music unfolds at its own pace. It is music with a point of view and momentum. It begins with an intention to be sincere and fully expressive in the moment, and often results in musical journeys toward transcendence. The duo is one.