published Friday, March 30th, 2012

Splinter duo from Packway Handle Band plays Thursday


What: Sans Abri and Train Hits Wagon.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: JJ's Bohemia, 231 M.L. King Blvd.

Admission: $5.

Phone: 266-1400.

Venue website:

There are few things sadder than a song without a band to sing it.

Late last year, Josh Erwin and Michael Paynter realized they had nearly a full record worth of music that didn't jive with the repertoire of The Packway Handle Band, an alt-bluegrass group they helped found in Athens, Ga.

The songs were begging to be played plugged in, which ran against the grain of Packway's traditional stage setup of acoustic instruments playing rodeo around a single mike.

In short, Erwin said, the songs were out on the musical streets, so he and Paynter formed a duo to put a roof over their heads. They named it Sans Abri, after the French word for "homeless."

"I hope it does come across as being a separate thing so it's not just people thinking they're getting some watered-down, stripped-down version [of Packway Handle]," Erwin said. "The stuff we're playing expresses that, too."

Erwin and Paynter have been gigging primarily in and around their home in Athens, with occasional northern forays to Atlanta. Thursday, they'll be bringing Sans Abri across state lines for the first time to play JJ's Bohemia.

What audiences will hear from Sans Abri will maintain a spiritual connection to Packway Handle's rousing bluegrass-inspired folk, but with a distinct identity, Erwin said.

The group currently has worked up a little more than an hour of original material but also can perform a number of covers and reinterpretations of Packway Handle Band songs.

Thanks to performing as a duo, Erwin said he and Paynter are able to incorporate more showmanship into their shows, maneuvering around the stage instead of being tied to a single mike. Being plugged in also allows for a more dynamic approach to the music instead of "chucking away" straight into the mike.

As Sans Abri, Erwin said they have also been able to distance themselves from the stylistic expectations associated with bluegrass. That alone has been worth the added challenge of keeping people engaged with fewer men onstage, he said.

"We've found there's a stigma associated with bluegrass in some instances," Erwin said. "We're opening up to a different genre. That's something that's interesting and fun to feel like we're a part of."

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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