Iron Horse Music Hall (Northampton, MA)
December 3, 2010
Those who have followed the music entries on this blog (or in print in The Valley Advocate) know that I have been highly critical of the state of modern bluegrass music, which has become paint-by-numbers masquerading as homage to past masters: affected twangy vocals, way-too-earnest mountain gospel, and flat-picked guitar and fiddle breakouts at predicable intervals. It’s as if everyone is trying to channel Bill Monroe and has completely forgotten the New Grass innovations of the 1980s. Until now. A handful of bands have decided it’s time to look at the calendar and bring bluegrass out of the 1930s and into the 21st century. Foremost among them is Boston-based Crooked Still. As they demonstrated on Friday December 3, in the first of three sold-out Iron Horse concerts, bluegrass is ready for some new blood and new directions.
The first of several great things about this concert was the presence of so many young folks in the audience, a sure sign that Crooked Still’s sound is tailored for a new generation. Re: that sound, several instrumental shifts stand out. First of all, the band seldom uses a guitar at all. Where most bands would have a flat-picker, Crooked Still has Tristan Clarridge, a cellist who uses his instrument to create a deep resonant aural soup in which other sounds can bubble. He also plays in a style that’s more bop than classical, one akin to what Natalie Haas does in her collaboration with Alisdair Fraser. Perhaps that’s no accident; Crooked Still’s fiddler is Natalie’s younger sister, Britanny, and though she can lay down licks with the best string players, she mainly joins double bass player Cory DiMario, and banjo wizard Gregory Liszt in putting down ambient grooves. When Crooked Still get things cranked up, there isn’t much empty space in the room, and sounds meld like a bluegrass gamelan rather than simply setting up the next solo. And this is as it should be. The instrumentalists are sublime in their own right, but the centerpiece of the band is vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. Hers is a glorious voice that is, at once, muscular yet soft as silk. On stage her exuberance and the ease with which beautiful notes pour out of her mouth are so infectious that it’s hard not to fixate on her. You should look around, though. This band isn’t flashy on stage, but there’s a lot going on. Just because Crooked Still doesn’t go in for a lot of prolonged solos doesn’t mean they’re a simple chord-progression band. Like jazz musicians, polyphonic and polyrhymic sounds are kicking about the stage and come together in a harmonious whole.
Crooked Still mostly played selections from its most recent CD, Some Strange Country (Signature Sounds) and these also indicate that this is not your father’s bluegrass music. How about a cover of “You Got the Silver,” originally recorded by The Rolling Stones? But Ms. O’Donovan can sing anything—an old chestnut like “The Golden Vanity,” bad times songs such as “I’m Troubled,” a fragile Celtic song such as “Wind and Rain,” one recorded by Emmylou Harris (“Orphan Girl”), or achingly beautiful numbers such as “Sometimes in this Country.” The dancey backbeat to many of Crooked Still’s arrangements are another reason why young folks love them. To be a 100% objective, Crooked Still’s show was not flawless. The band needs to work on ending their songs with the same flourish with which they open—quite a few dense arrangements petered out and left the audience uncertain as to when to applaud. In like fashion, the textured instrumentation on occasion felt like works in progress in which the timing was ever-so-slightly off. But for my money, I’ll take imprecise innovation over paint-by-the-numbers any day of the week. Check out this band if they come anywhere near you. The worst that will happen is that you’ll fall madly in love with Aoife O’Donovan, a fine first step in plumbing the depth of the rest of the music.