Tonight: Big Leg Emma returns to the Thunderbird Cafe

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Winter is a slow time for Big Leg Emma. The band, based in western New York, can be found during the spring, summer and fall touring the country, playing their jamming folk music at all kinds of festivals and clubs.

“In the winter, we try to do some runs, but where we’re from, the weather can get pretty nasty coming off the lakes,” said frontman Steve Johnson, who co-founded the band with Charity Nuse in 2001. “Sometimes weather can hinder us from traveling too much. We try to stay busy, you know, we try to stay out there as much as we can.”

Tonight, Big Leg Emma’s bus rolls into Pittsburgh for a show with The Trainjumpers at Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville.

“We try to get to Pittsburgh every six months or so,” Mr. Johnson said. “We had a show earlier this year at the Hard Rock Cafe. And the Thunderbird has always been good to us. We have our Pittsburgh family. There’s always new people that come, but there’s always that base of fans that we can rely on.”

But that doesn’t mean the Big Leg Emma that you’ll see tonight is the same group you saw in years past. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Nuse — who play guitar and mandolin, respectively — have seen a lot of band members come and go.

“Drummers and bass players,” Mr. Johnson laughed. “We try to keep the family mentality every time we hire somebody for the band. But we spend a lot of time on the road, a lot of time away from our families. Life on the road, it gets hard, and we’ve had members get married and have children and stuff. These are personal decisions, and we try to keep close and maintain friendships. That family atmosphere is important to us.”

It is, in fact, a family — when you consider that Mr. Johnson and Ms. Nuse were a couple when they started the band and have a child together.

“We decided it wasn’t best [to stay a couple], but we’ve maintained a really good friendship and a really good business relationship to keep this thing going. It can be difficult. But the way we look at life is that we started this beautiful thing together. The same with our son. We never fight over him, we have a great relationship. He comes on the road with us sometimes. We’ve just always known that we’re not going to spend our lives hating. We’re going to continue to grow personally and musically together.

“We started when we were very young and this is the first and only band we’ve ever been in. As we’ve matured, we try to get musicians of different types of backgrounds.”

The newer members of Big Leg Emma are Kev Rowe on lead guitar, Corey Kertzie on drums and Miguel Morales on bass.

“For example, Miguel is from Puerto Rico,” Mr. Johnson said. “We always try to keep that worldly flavor, so we all have something unique to bring to the music. Even though I’m the main songwriter, what we play is very open and everyone contributes.”

So some of the fans’ old favorites take on new lives.

“Actually, to me, it makes it stronger,” Mr. Johnson said of the music. “We can revisit some of our older material and kind of constantly evolve. I think Bob Dylan said, ‘If you stop growing, stop evolving, you stop living.’ That’s the mentality we take with all the songs. We don’t mind changing them. It’s a cool thing.”

What type of music do they play?

“We try to limit it to two words: Americana jam,” Mr. Johnson said. “Our folksong-writing background is the lyrical element, and then we like to stretch things out musically and give the crowd an impact with our improv, our jam.

“I don’t think we’ve ever done the same jam twice. We don’t rehearse our jamming parts. We read about Phish and how they structure their jams, but we tend to go more off of emotion and feel. We go with how we’re feeling at the time.”

A flick of a guitar neck can signal the others in the band which direction the music is going.

“We all keep our ears and eyes open,” Mr. Johnson said. “We have a good connection. We try to keep it very energetic, very groovin’ all the time.

“Actually, I don’t know what the set list is going to be tonight. We usually figure that out about an hour before the show. We find a vibe, you know. We try to keep it real, keep it fresh. In Pittsburgh, we tend to get our hippie fans who come out and we all like to jam.”

Big Leg Emma and The Trainjumpers start at Thunderbird Cafe, 4023 Butler St., at 9 p.m. Cover is $12 to $14.

Dan Majors:

First Published December 26, 2013 3:46 PM

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