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Crooked Still: Main Stage Presence

14 November 2010

Whether by design or accident, New England’s shrine to folk music, Club Passim, is hosting a weeklong showcase of cutting edge string bands with Boston roots. Crooked Still kicks things off on November 17th and 18th. Not surprisingly, their four shows in this tiny venue are already sold out. Next up, on the 19th, is Joy Kills Sorrow, who return to Passim after a summer and fall touring the U.S. and Canada. Wrapping things up on the 22nd is the newcomer of the bunch, the bluegrass outfit Della Mae.

I caught Crooked Still’s shows at this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The band has often performed at Grey Fox, but as the sun sank on the first official day of the festival and the quintet set up, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan wryly noted that this time they had almost achieved their goal of playing on the main stage after dark. They then kicked things off with a number from their latest CD, Some Strange Country, “Calvary.” I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share this chestnut, and I believe the time has come…

One of the most appealing aspects of Crooked Still’s performance style is that it creates an atmosphere of spontaneity on stage. Never mind that this may largely be pure showmanship (I’ve heard rumors that banjo wiz Liszt writes out his manic solos in detail). Watch how giddy O’Donovan appears at the end of “Calvary.” She has the look of someone in a jam session who has just stumbled upon a moment of perfect harmony. I’ve seen her react like this at the end of songs over and over, yet I buy it every time. Imitators take note: if you want to hold the audience in your hand, try bottling a little joy like this band does.

Listening to that tune and the set that followed, I couldn’t imagine who else might need to be convinced that Crooked Still is ready to be a headliner, but while the band clearly has legions of fans, it remains somewhere on the periphery of the bluegrass scene. That tenuous relationship may have something to do with two complaints that I sometimes hear muttered when Crooked Still comes up in certain circles, to wit—

1. It Ain’t Bluegrass

No one would make the case that Crooked Still goes after the vaunted “high and lonesome” sound that defines so much of bluegrass, and yes, it’s true that they’ve dispensed with a couple of the iconic instrumental elements of the traditional bluegrass outfit in favor of a…er, cello. That said, if somebody’s keeping a checklist of the attributes of bluegrass, surely Crooked Still’s repertoire fulfills several of the key items: they’re steadfastly acoustic, their rhythms are driven by a propulsive chop, and most importantly their songs are largely drawn from the canon of traditional ballads, hymns and fiddle tunes (“Calvary” is a good illustration of this— a 19th century hymn that came to the band by way of a recording from banjo legend Dock Boggs).

Some folks seem to think that this last attribute aligns the band more with old time music than bluegrass. In truth, the whole old-time-versus-bluegrass debate always depresses me. The style of playing shaped by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the other founders of bluegrass was suffused with the ancient musical traditions of the mountains and the British Isles. That being the case, why is a bluegrass band that plays songs by the likes of Merle Haggard somehow more authentic than an outfit like Crooked Still with its contemporary renditions of sea shanties and Appalachian melodies?

I suspect the band itself wouldn’t lose much sleep over this argument. Many of the younger string bands today seem to be taking pains not to affiliate themselves too closely with bluegrass. Perhaps they fear that the label will summon up associations among younger audiences with cornpone sentimentality and weird uncles. If this is in fact the case, it’s a shame. Bluegrass is too young a genre and too marginal a cultural phenomenon to be defined so narrowly. Whether it’s through conservative impulses within the community or stereotypes imposed by ill-informed outsiders, bluegrass can’t afford to get painted into a corner. That’s why I’m saying that Crooked Still and the other ensembles that are redefining string band music are still playing bluegrass, whether they mean to or not.

2. Their Songs All Sound the Same

Okay, don’t shoot the messenger, but this is probably the most common knock against Crooked Still. It’s certainly true that their sound is absolutely distinctive. Whether it’s by a funky groove, a soaring chromatic run on the banjo or a snippet of breathy vocals, it takes all of five seconds to identify a Crooked Still song. It’s also the case that, while the latest album might follow a more programmatic structure than past efforts, all the band’s recorded output has hewed closely to a formula based on catchy modal hooks and elegantly spare arrangements.

But, come on! How many bands ever attain a truly distinctive sound? Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we tend to remember performers for just one or two traits that were their own (think of Jimmie Rogers’ yodel or Johnny Cash’s flat and haggard tone). I’m sure many a musician looks upon arriving at such a defined sound as having attained the holy grail of performance technique. Once you’ve got your hands on such a rare commodity, why let go?

Perhaps the chief liability to having a unique sound is simply that pickers don’t cover your material. In bluegrass, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the way that music gets disseminated and integrated into the genre. Because of their groundbreaking technique and unorthodox instrumentation, even the band’s most ardent admirers don’t seem tempted to copy its style or substance. But who knows? I’ve seen a lot of young cellists in bluegrass jams of late. Perhaps the musicians who will carry Crooked Still’s mantel are still growing up.

Whatever its drawbacks, the obvious advantage to sticking with a particular sound is that you can keep refining and developing it. Through some key personnel changes over the years, Crooked Still has continued to hone their particular style. That single-mindedness has yielded dividends, both on Some Strange Country and especially in their recent live performances. The best way I can put it is that “they sound like Crooked Still, only more so.” True to their name, they have distilled their sound to its essence and they have achieved that odd mix of tightness and grace that only comes from working on material for a very long time.

All that said, I’d love to hear the band take on new repertoire. Such as…? Well, how about some Merle Haggard? Actually, you don’t have to tax your imagination to get a sense of what Crooked Still might sound like if it expanded its songbook. Several members of the band are involved in side projects. Banjo ace Greg Liszt has fronted a group called The Deadly Gentlemen for the past couple of years. The band is about to release a new album entitled Carry Me To Home. It’s a fascinating, challenging and altogether worthwhile effort that sounds a bit like Crooked Still might if O’Donovan turned the mic over to Eminem. Don’t take my word for it: if you hurry, you can get a free download of the album here.

Yer Pal— Curly

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2 comments

  1. As a fan of Crooked Still, Joy Kills Sorrow and Della Mae I have nothing to add to your essay and thank you for writing it, but I would like add one comment related to the phrase in the first paragraph: “…New England’s shrine to folk music, Club Passim…”

    It would appear that the “Club Passim” we have known since the Donlan’s “Passim” is no more, having re-branded itself by written notice and the logo that accompanied the message as “Passim, as well as dropping the word “folk” from its mission statement. Whether or not they in the future will be a “folk” club, or drifts into another Boston-area pop club with nights playing homage to artists like Prince and Mandonna, remains to be seen.

    The Club Passim mission statement, in effect since 2/13/10:
    “Music as a Mission
    Plans are well underway to ensure the mission of Club Passim continues. It’s more than the sharing of good music. As a non-profit, the club believes it critical to preserve and promote folk and acoustic music by nurturing new artists, offering varied programming, and featuring both new and established talent. The challenge to fulfill this mission is to keep it financially sound by building its membership base and continue strong fundraising efforts through donations, corporate sponsorships and grants. We hope you join us this year in supporting the artists and helping us keep playing the music for another 50 years.”

    Notice the absence of the word “folk.”

    By email:

    Greetings,

    We would like to introduce you to the new logo, brand, and mission of Passim!

    logo new

    Listen. Experience. Engage. These three words define what it means to be part of Passim. And our new mission statement captures the essence of what Passim has always been:

    “Passim, a nonprofit arts organization, creates an inspiring and interactive music experience for all, building a vibrant community for artists, students and audience members through its legendary listening venue and school of music.”

    Since 1958, during the days of the Club 47, and through today, Passim has presented virtually every type of music imaginable and we will continue to do so. The common thread throughout our storied history is that we have been and will always be the cherished place where people come together to share memorable musical moments.

    And now you can visit Passim online by using passim.org. We have a new web site in the works, too, so we appreciate your patience.

    Thank you for being part of the Passim community!

    Regards,

    Dan Hogan
    Executive Director”

    See and read the old and new logos and mission statements at “Rest in Peace, Passim Folk Music and Cultural Center”, 11/1/10 – http://notlobmusic.blogspot.com/2010/11/rest-in-peace-passim-folk-music-and.html


    • Hey Jeff–

      Thanks for the interesting and provocative comment– the best kind! Given your experience booking acts around Boston, you’re far better equipped than I to judge if the changes at (Club) Passim are dire or innocuous. I’ve been over at Passim a good bit of late, and the music has sounded good and the atmosphere has been youthful and lively. I can’t help but wonder if the dropping of “folk” from the organization’s description of itself is its way of attempt to run away not so much from “folk” as from “old folk–” an impulse akin to the squeamishness I detect among some young pickers around the label of “bluegrass.”

      I don’t need to tell you that this reaction (which will be classified as “panicky hipster syndrome” in the next edition of the DSM) isn’t anything new. It goes back at least as far as Dylan’s notorious kiss-off in the mid-1960’s: “Folk music is a bunch of fat people.” The real damage such attitudes cause is that they ghettoize folk music and/or bluegrass. For now at least, folk music seems to be alive and well at Passim, but even so, I can appreciate your concern. If people are playing folk music but shunning the label, then the folk tradition becomes, by definition, something that belongs to the past and only the past. I hope it’s clear that I sometimes worry that bluegrass is heading towards this same iceberg.

      Yer Pal– Curly



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