Story and photos by Maria Wyllie EBS Associate Editor

BOZEMAN – A “sweetback” is an antebellum word used to describe someone who is “too smooth and too fresh to go by any other name.” Although not commonly used today, the term is resurfacing in Bozeman as rock ‘n’ roll band the Sweetbacks gain recognition on the local music scene.

Founding member Alex Griffith, on guitar and vocals, caught wind of the term while watching the HBO television show “Boardwalk Empire.”

“I thought it was catchy,” Griffith said. “It sort of jived with the music we were playing. [Lead singer Brianna Moore] has this sweet, honey-dripped voice, so it felt right.”

Griffith founded the group with Moore and saxophonist Carlos Holznagel during a neighborhood jam session on Bozeman’s north side last summer, and the trio added more band members, gradually evolving into the Sweetbacks.

After going through a few bass players, guitarists and drummers, Griffith says the group has finally found its core lineup with the additions of Mark Wetstein on bass, Ross Ridenour on guitar and vocals, and Bryson Stoner on drums.

Self-described as a rock ‘n’ roll band steeped in Motown, soul, and the greater American songbook,
the Sweetbacks give current interpretations of older music and also write originals affected by blues, rock and jazz.

Alex Griffith founded the Sweetbacks with Moore and Holznagel while playing neighborhood jam sessions on Bozeman's north side.

Alex Griffith founded the Sweetbacks with Moore and Holznagel while playing neighborhood jam sessions on Bozeman’s north side.

“We’re all influenced by old soul music like Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin,” Griffith said, adding that they consider Lake Street Dive and The Congress two of their current inspirations. “The common thread is we love really strong singers and really soulful songwriting.”

Holznagel’s saxophone and Moore’s voice have become signature sounds for the band, giving them a soulful vibe that sets them apart from other groups on the local circuit.

“Brie’s really blossomed into a pretty amazing singer in the past year,” Griffith said. “It’s been fun learning how she can lead what I can do on guitar or what [Holznagel] does on sax.”

The Sweetbacks have two gigs scheduled for the end of July: a local-band showcase with three other groups at the Zebra Cocktail Lounge on July 24, and a Grateful Dead tribute show at the Eagles Ballroom on July 30 after Music on Main.

The tribute show will feature multiple bands, with each act taking on a different decade of Dead tunes – the Sweetbacks will be performing songs primarily from the ‘70s. They’ve been offering their own renditions of Grateful Dead songs since they first started playing, making them a natural fit for the show.

“[It’s] really adventurous music that a lot of people recognize, and it’s really fun to play,” Griffith said.

As the band continues playing together, Griffith says they hope to eventually have an equal split of originals and covers – a deep repertoire of music to which fans can relate.

“I think that we offer something that’s approachable to a lot of people across a lot of different genres while also still maintaining a level of originality,” he said. “It’s an easy passport to a good time.”

The Sweetback’s play their first headlining show at the Filling Station on August 21.