The Rise of David Wax Museum: Grassroots Beginnings Followed by the Catalyst of an Hour in Newport

David Wax - Photo by Richard Kluver, grass clipping blog. All rights reserved.

Though it might seem like David Wax Museum shot to stardom overnight, that’s not really the full (or accurate) story. The 2007 foundation of the band in Boston was followed by several years of the kind of steady fan growth that most folks would point to and call success. Up until 2010, the Museum, which is led by mid-Missouri raised David Wax and rural Virginian Suz Slezak, toured the U.S. on a modest budget, crashing with friends and fans along the way. Some concerts in the early days were in living rooms and backyards, but the band was eventually able to book opening slots for acts with a young, rabid fan base, such as The Avett Bros and The Low Anthem.

But it wasn’t until last year when the band decided, on a whim, to enter Magic Hat’s contest for a slot at the 2010 Newport Folk Festival that things started to get bigger and better. In a short interview with David and Suz on Sunday at this year’s festival in Newport, Suz said that she read about the contest online and David’s friends at Boston’s Kitchen Sessions blog encouraged him to enter the contest.

The band entered and made it into the top three, which were selected by festival producers like Jay Sweet, from a pool of about 150 entrants. Once in the top three, each band had to drive their fans to vote. “You could watch the votes populate,” Suz said, making it hard not to constantly check the standings.

The Museum won the contest and Suz points to the community built by the band’s early touring that made the difference. Once announced on Newport schedule, loads of festival fans (and bloggers like me) discovered the group’s stunning voices, unique sound and outrageous talent through YouTube and other channels in advance of the event. After a phenomenal performance at Newport 2010, the David and Suz won the attention of NPR’s Bob Boilen and others, earning (not winning) them a spot on the Tiny Desk concert schedule. That performance was followed by a wealth of other appearances in advance of and following the release of their latest album, Everything Is Saved, which was released in February. “A lot of people watch those Tiny Desk concerts,” Suz said, noting that the band saw significant impact on turnout as the press clippings continued to roll in. NPR’s Tiny Desk, which runs online on NPR.org and on YouTube but not on air, is a weekly routine for folk fans. At the time of posting, the YouTube version of the Museum’s performance, which is likely not even the most popular channel for watching these performances, had 12,314 views. The band’s latest album was also covered or reviewed by the other widely read/watched and influential music snob staples like The New Yorker, TIME, Paste, World Café, Folk Alley and PBS.

By February, the band sold out shows across the East Coast, including performances in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Biddeford, and Charlottesville. Following other high turnout shows across the US, the Museum toured internationally in the spring.

While these guys are smart and had experienced and connected advocates along the way, with solid management by Dolph Ramseur (Avett Bros and Langhorne Slim) and PR by Brooklyn’s Shore Fire Media (a machine of folk publicity), there’s something to be said about how one, amazing hour-long performance on a Newport stage gave under-noticed talent the credibility and platform to be so successful the following year. When asked if it was that Newport appearance that led the band to the national stage, David Wax bluntly replied that “there’s no question.”

This year the band performed on the main Fort Stage with the same confidence and energy as last year, but it’s a new day. “Last year we were contest winners,” said Suz. “This year we were invited to play on the same stage as Gillian and Emmylou. And we can afford hotels now!”

Even with all of the buzz, David and Suz are as humble and approachable as can be. And they haven’t forgotten their roots. They know that without the little things, the big things won’t last. After an exhausting set in the sun on Sunday morning, the band signed autographs at the artist tent, played another set at the children’s LEGO tent, made full round of press interviews (even with us little guys) before hopping back on the Fort stage to play with Emmylou Harris.

Listen to the band’s 2011 performance here or catch them at one of the remaining shows on their schedule this year.