Crooked Still: one of the finest string bands on this or any other planet
This post originally appeared in the June 2010 Victory Review, the acoustic music e-zine of Victory Music, a non-profit organization promoting acoustic music in the Pacific NW.
They originally met as students, most from the New England Conservatory, a place that conjures images of tuxedoed symphony players or black-bereted jazz cats. But they bring their masterful chops and sophisticated approach to music that comes from the hollers and the windswept shores, old time string band music that is steeped in Child ballads, troubadour tale-telling and the struggles of people who have worked the sea and the land. They play new versions of hardscrabble tunes once scratched out and warbled by folks named Roscoe and Ola Belle, many of them authorless artifacts of a traditional music that is reviving with beauty and force in their hands and those of their contemporaries. They are Crooked Still and they are one of the finest acoustic string bands currently performing on this or any other planet.
And on their fourth studio album, Some Strange Country, they continue to grow and stretch their sound, the breadth of their ensemble playing, their songwriting and arranging becoming as sophisticated as their pure instrumental skills. This second disc of their second lineup showcases the symbiotic musical partnership of cellist Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Brittany Haas. who replaced original cellist Rushad Eggleston. The pair, who migrated from Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings to Crooked Still, has maintained the drive and fury of the band’s Low Lonesome Sound but added strains of chamber interplay that conjure emotions ranging from outright joy to dark melancholy.
The pure musicality of their playing is best heard with good headphones, but Crooked Stills’ pure blast of sonic energy is best felt live where their drive and charm get you on your feet and moving. In a festival setting, a band of teens and 20-somethings will be pressed to the stage, soaking in the new oldtime, singing their hearts out to Railroad Bill and Shady Grove. Individually, the band members bring enormous range to their instruments. Clarridge’s cello and Haas’ violin dance around each other like grand ballroom champions, with spins, dips and daring-do. Alternately, Haas’ 5-string fiddle plays harmony to O’Donovan’s sultry vocals. Gregory Listz plays a churning funky banjo that is propulsive and intellectual. Underneath it all, Corey DiMario lays a solid but swinging foundation based on his conservatory jazz training.
With no guitar or mandolin, it’s an unusual configuration for a string band, although the addition of Haas added some semblance of normalcy to the original lineup of bass, cello and banjo.
“It wasn’t like we set out to have a band with no guitar and a no mandolin, not a fiddle but a cello,” commented DiMario during a conversation we had this past February at Wintergrass.
“Aoife and I were friends and we were playing music together and Greg and Rushad, at the time they were friends and we all sort of met and just started playing together. It was more a discovery than an invention. I think most good bands start out that way, it starts from people just wanting to hang out and play music together and then it is like wow, this is a cool sound. It grew from there.”
While DiMario was schooled in jazz, he found the switch to string band music “pretty seamless. It was really natural to me. At the time I was really frustrated, not with jazz musically, but with the scene. It can be a frustrating environment because jazz is so complex and the appreciation of it is so limited….The time you connect with the audience is a lot more limited. Whereas in different kinds of folk music and bluegrass and old time music, it is folk music, it is for people. I find there is a much more rewarding connection in performing it. And I think my jazz background allowed me to hear it in a slightly different way and come at it from a different perspective,” he said.
From the beginning, Crooked Still showed a genius for playing old tunes, traditionals, Robert Johnson songs, and the like with one eye on the past and one eye searching for new perspective.
There is an odd paradigm among some old time players: they are so concerned with authenticity that they place a premium on copying the sounds and approaches of the music’s old masters, even down to the newsboy caps and period–perfect button shoes. But the old masters were just folks driven to make music their own way. And Crooked Still carries on that tradition: bringing modern improv sensibility to the old songs, and casting originals or modern-day covers in the honey-golden glow of a wide-eyed tradition.
And their sound keeps developing in subtle and not-so subtle ways.
“With Rushad, who is such an amazing musician and such a strong personality, both musically and otherwise, I used to feel like it was kind of a two guitar rock band with a lead singer,” DiMario said. “Now it is more of complete ensemble. The palate is larger for colors and arrangements. The way the Tristan and Brittany work together is really amazing, the string sound, and also the way that Brittany and Aoife work together.
“It has allowed Greg to really expand his role in the band,” DiMario said. “It is not always noticeable to the listener because it is really subtle but a lot of the riffs and grooves really stem from Greg now, the initial kernel often comes from something Greg has come up with. Greg is the most unique banjo player I have ever known. His rhythmic sensibility is so developed and so different from most modern banjo players, he is really taking the accompaniment and the rhythmic element, the percussive element, to a whole other level.”
With four originals and a Rolling Stones cover, Some Strange Country is a bit of a departure in terms or subject. Texturally it is more expansive as well, with subtle layerings of string overdubs and even washes of the unstringbandy Hammond B-3.
“I’m always skeptical of stuff where when people try to make something more relevant or more modern and the obvious choices is they add drums, electric guitar, a Wurlitzer. Hey make it a rock band!” DiMario said. “That is a little too obvious for us, we like to go at it a more subtle way to make it more modern sounding or more relevant….”
“It is more in our agenda to capture the spirit or the energy of that without actual bringing it. If we do bring in like a B3 sound you almost don’t even know that it is a B3 it is not so overt, he said.”
While the band’s unique line-up and increasingly collaborative process have forged a more complex sound, and their incorporation of original material has provided an outlet for O’Donovan’s songwriting muse (as an aside, O’Donovan writes incredible rock songs, which she presented last summer at a Seattle house concert featuring a pick-up band of friends including singer Heather Masse of Prairie Home Companion and The Wailin’ Jennys renown) the motivation to reimagine older material continues to drive the band. Like Signature Sound label mates Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Crooked Still is resurrecting tunes from traditions that are fading away.
“The point of Crooked Still—and what I love about it—is rediscovering old music and making it new,” O’Donovan stated in the news release that accompanied the new CD. “These songs have so much life in them, and I love being able to reinvent them and put a modern stamp on them.”
For more on Crooked Still, go to their website.
Photos by Eric Frommer.