Frog Holler – Manbites Dog Theater (Durham, NC)
Frog Holler is from the semi-wilds of Pennsylvania, a point of geography and pride that the band wears on its sleeves and on Daniel Bower’s bass drum. On a mild early-November Sunday night, Bowers and the other five members of Frog Holler brought a little bit of Berks County, PA — nah, make that a large chunk of it — to downtown Durham. By the time a stomping version of “Pennsylvania” from their 2001 album Idiots filled the black-walled theater and brought the 26-song, two-encore concert to a close, I (born in the map-shy town of Sweet Valley, PA) had long since gotten in touch with my inner Pennsylvanian.
But the emotion that propelled the show didn’t come from regional bonding. Two weeks earlier, Gerry Livers — a longtime supporter of the band, a dear friend to musicians and fellow music fans all along the east coast (from his hometown in Connecticut through years in Philadelphia to his latest home in Asheville, North Carolina), and a truly generous soul — had passed away unexpectedly. The guys in Frog Holler were among the guests at an afternoon gathering held in Livers’ honor, at which a time-tested equation held true: To balance sorrow, share good memories, a little whiskey, and a lot of heartfelt music.
That strategy, and at least 25 people from the memorial, followed the band from the afternoon gathering to the evening show. The intimate confines of the theater — think a house concert except with the chairs on a riser — provides the opportunity to really acquaint yourself with a band. With Frog Holler, you get Mike Lavdanski on banjo and harmonies and looking like a lanky, young Levon Helm freed from his drum set and loving it. The rhythm section is a study in contrasts, at least on this night, with the animated Bower and stoic bassist Josh Sceurman. At the flanks you’ll find the multi-instrumentalists: mandolinist, lap steel player, and auxiliary guitarist Todd Bartolo stage right, a wunderkind in a Clem Snide T-shirt, while stage left is steady John Kilgore on guitars and organ. Anchoring it all in the middle on acoustic guitar is lead vocalist and songwriter Darren Schlappich.
The two sets were heavy on Frog Holler’s latest disc, the atmospheric, at times even somber Railings, with the band digging into the likes of “Unlock The Door”, the country-gospelish “The Sweetest Sound”, and “About Time” (the last one rolling along, musically anyway, like a new generation’s “Gentle On My Mind”) as if they had just discovered yet another dimension in each. There was also a host of covers, including the traditional “What Did The Deep Sea Say?” and Will Oldham’s traditional-sounding “Idle Hands Are The Devil’s Playthings”, as well as the rare Bill Monroe/Evan Dando double, courtesy of “Rocky Road Blues” and the Lemonheads’ “My Drug Buddy”.
And with a nod toward Livers’ musical heroes, the band tackled two Neil Young tunes, “For The Turnstiles” and “The Losing End”, before ending the first set with a positively soul-stirring version of his favorite song, Gram Parsons’ “A Song for You”.
“You can’t rush a good crop to give up its yield,” sang Schlappich on “Glory”, another scuffed-up gem from Railings. Witnessing Frog Holler skillfully unfold their songs on a night bursting with emotion, it quickly became clear they had learned that lesson well.