It was only a couple of years ago that longtime friends and Airshow co-founders Cody Chelius and Steve Gallagher played their first set together as an acoustic duo, in a Nashville-area bar. The fateful date was so successful, it set the stage for what would become the first Airshow performance, on July 4 of 2016.
“The bartenders were blown away, and they asked us to put a full band together for their Fourth of July party,” says singer-mandolinist Chelius. “They had a large outdoor area with a stage, and we played to 1,000 people in pouring rain. Everybody stayed, and people were dancing in the rain. Then the rain subsided just in time for fireworks. It was an absolutely fabulous first show.”
There was a certain inevitability in Chelius and Gallagher’s collaboration. Chelius was born the son of Dead-head parents, and Gallagher, his best friend, often came along on family excursions to Grateful Dead shows when the two were but small boys. They experienced all of their musical coming-of-age moments together, from picking up their first instruments to discovering the latter-day jam band wonders of Trey Anastasio and Phish.
Given their history, it’s unsurprising that Airshow ply a brand of Grateful Dead-inspired rock that plays well with the jam-band crowd. But unlike so many other jam-circuit children of Jerry, Airshow are more influenced by the Dead’s gift for appealingly rustic pop-rock songwriting, and by the members’ various forays into subgenres like bluegrass and country and folk — think the Jerry Garcia Band, or Old and in the Way.
That focus came as partly result of circumstance, and partly by design. Gallagher tells that he and Chelius split up for college — with Chelius heading to Baltimore and Gallagher heading to Middle Tennessee State University — before reconvening in Murfreesboro to resume their lifelong musical partnership in 2015.
“Cody got heavily involved with playing the mandolin while he was in collge,” Gallagher says. “And I spent a lot of time practicing and playing on acoustic guitar, because I didn’t always have other people to jam with. So when we got back together, it just seemed like a better fit.
“But I do a lot of the songwriting, and as a songwriter, I’ve always written on acoustic, even if it was for an electric band. I don’t want the tone distracting me from the idea in my head. My way of writing has always been to sit down on the couch with an acoustic guitar and a pot of coffee, and start banging out ideas.”
Chelius says the excitement of their first show spurred a quick recording session, resulting in the five-song EP “Lightbulb.” Though it’s the band’s only studio recording to date, a number of Airshow live performances are also available on archive.org. In the meantime, Chelius says the band is preparing a second EP for a planned late springtime release.
“When we did that first EP, we were just a ‘baby band,'” Chelius says. “This time around, we’re feeling more confident; we’re taking some bigger risks and employing some different sounds. And I think the songs now are just better and more mature.”
Airshow will play Preservation Pub Thursday, Jan. 25 at 10 p.m.