The year 2020 was a bane and boon to Robby Eldridge. The historic pandemic forced him and other American musicians to delay projects and tuck away their tour gear for who-knows-how-long. Frontmen like Eldridge, leader of Pittsburgh, PA’s popular rock outfit Steelesque, are starving for stages, and fans of live music are just as hungry. Not. Fair. At. All.
Fortunately, Eldridge is among those artists who looked at 2020’s offering of solitude as a gift. He conjured something new in the studio: The Warm Auction.
Currently, The Warm Auction is a four-song collaboration between Eldridge and Steelesque bandmate and friend Sam Baldigowski. The Warm Auction is still a work in progress — Will it be the name of the band or the album? — but Eldridge and Baldigowski have laid strong groundwork with quasi-completion of the first four songs, which they will release for public preview as an EP on Dec. 23. The EP also features Nashville/PGH recording artist, Shawn Mazzei, on lead guitar.
The duo hit the pause button on Steelesque to “make new sounds with old tools,” Eldridge says. They succeeded. Vintage instruments (with the exception of programmed drums) carry the songs, which are laced with themes of change. The sound is light, easy and enjoyable — technically and musically — but there is depth here, too; the lyrics are sublime at times. So if you’re looking for what’s destined to be popular in 2021 — trite pop hooks blended with sugar-soaked lyrics that attempt to make some sorta (non)sense outta COVID — look elsewhere. Warmth abound on The Warm Auction — just as intended.
“Sam and I have always flushed out my songwriting ideas,” Eldridge says. “He’s a very patient listener and usually knows exactly what I’m aiming for with my songs.”
Baldigowski appears on mandolin, pedal steel and lap steel guitars on The Warm Auction, and it’s clear that he enjoys his role as Eldridge’s support player. Baldigowski confidently and competently balances Eldridge’s voice, which is Eldridge’s finest instrument. Eldridge is featured on guitar, bass, keys, banjo, percussion, and programming on The Warm Auction, but his voice is the star.
Eldridge is an unabashed disciple of The Church Of Mick And Keith, and his Jagger-meets-Dylan-meets-Lennon baritone has traditionally been the glue of his live and recorded works. However, on The Warm Auction he now uses his voice as a means to an end. The near-whispery, no-stretching-necessary authenticity of Eldridge’s voice on The Warm Auction bolsters his songs’ credibility. There is a strong marriage of music, melody and lyrics — no overshadowing allowed. He’s hit a high point with that marriage.
“I am very much conscious of that,” he says. “I used to emulate many (artists) and was self-conscious of my voice and how it sounded. I’m not focused on that now when I write and tell a story with my voice. I just sing and let the emotion influence the inflection and delivery of my voice. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize this earlier in my career. I think with Steelesque I gained more confidence in my songwriting abilities. I was more forthright in expressing what I heard in my head with the fantastic musicians that believed in me.”
If an election was held to see which song opens The Warm Auction — and that could still be up in the air — the winner would be “Darkness, Learn To See.” Eldridge and Baldigowski open the song with a seamless countdown that is underscored by a chorus of crickets.
Then, suddenly, there is a quiet kick into double-time. Slide guitar slithers over banjos, bass and drums. The windows are down, and things are a bit dusty, but this is a cool, fitting invitation into the mind of Robby Eldridge. So go along. He’s in the driver’s seat and “in the midst of living” (he says on his Web site).
With a play on words, Eldridge nudges us to pay more attention to the darkness that might face us, so that we can change and find light on the other side: “Some sidestep the mourning./They never open the door./They just keep walking/Right past it.”
Eldridge says “Darkness, Learn To See” is a reflection on his recent, hope-filled transition to becoming a single father. “My world became more visible within the darkness I resided in for many years,” he says.
He channeled those feelings through the chorus of “Darkness”: “And I never feared the alone./Still a king but I/lack a throne/A place to call my home/and turn my key.”
Love, change, inspiration and hope also punctuate the other three songs on “The Warm Auction” EP: “Loving Well,” “Sit In Irons” and “Coming In Real Thin.” “Loving Well” might be Eldridge’s tongue-in-cheek nod to the Stones’ “Loving Cup,” but he’ll never tell, and he doesn’t have to. The song stands on its own as a dense metaphor, and it’s catchy and mellow from the onset. (What’s NOT relaxing about bongos, tambourines and a Wurlitzer piano?)
“The ‘Loving Well’ should be in everybody’s life,” Eldridge says, “What’s a life without love, right?”
Like “The Loving Well,” “Coming In Real Thin” and “Sit In Irons” make for excellent earworms. “Coming In Real Thin” starts with an almost eerie western feel, and then Eldridge’s voice comes to the front: “The dreams come alive/in my bed./You’re trying to make sense of it all./Just taking in your environment.” Each chorus repeats the song title on a descending scale — almost making it dreamy.
“Sit In Irons” is more sonically straightforward. Petty-like in its delivery, Eldridge has a blast with his lyrical cadence. Baldigowski helps keep matters a bit quiet, until he and Eldridge burst into a fuzzy and loud yet hopeful refrain: “Rest your head up/like another hangover/a cool glass of water is what you do/So make the most/of your chance/Change your colors./Replace the blue.”
Eldridge speaks to “you” throughout The Warm Auction, but just who is “you?” Is it family, friends, society, or the man in the mirror?
“There’s a cast of characters that have been ‘you,’” Eldridge says, “and I’ve learned many lessons from each of them.”
Outside of the upcoming preview EP, four other songs could potentially make the final cut for The Warm Auction: “Energized American,” “Pinwheel,” “Dead On the Vine,” and “She Can Change A Man.” “Energized American” is a poetic, Springsteen-esque look at working class America — and a great homage to Pittsburgh — and it is the most visual, image-evoking song on The Warm Auction. Tentatively, the set ends with “She Can Change A Man,” a playful, Lou Reed-ish roll call of characters in a story of a downtrodden man and the girl that gives him hope.
More recently, Eldridge wrote and recorded a rough version of a new song called “Change Moves The Needle.” He’s mulling whether to include it on The Warm Auction. Given the first word of its title — and its musical and lyrical consistency with the rest of the project — he should find a place for it.
“Winter is coming,” they say in Game Of Thrones, and it promises to be a long one. (Thanks, COVID!) So if you find yourself in “the midst of living,” or if you’d like to hitch a ride there, connect with Robby Eldridge and Sam Baldigowski on The Warm Auction. Change is only a few songs away.
•Leon Thompson is a writer based in Vermont. (firstname.lastname@example.org)