New EP and fall tour close Crooked Still’s ten-year stint…for now
Folk music is a funny field. Bluegrass even funnier.
It’s 2011, after all. More than a hundred thousand people read this website – something which travels into your home or office on magical air waves or through magical tubes in the ground, through electric chords. We have global positioning devices in our cars and telephones (which we carry around in our pockets). There are robots in the world which perform precision surgeries with laser beams. The vast majority of us do not work in a factory or on an assembly line. We do jobs with vaguely descriptive titles. (What the hell is an online community manager? What exactly does an executive communications administrator do?)
Yet, there’s this thing people do with stringed instruments which is heavily informed by the building of railroads and working in fields. Its traditions are informed by people who faced decisions like – cow or car?
Often, when they choose to revisit old tunes from another time, folksingers and bluegrass pickers do so with a nod of respect and honor for the tradition itself. It’s this nod which automatically separates the song from authenticity, even if just by a shred. After all, if you’re playing a song simply because it once meant something to someone somewhere, it’s sort of like creating a documentary. It’s an honorable thing, to be sure, and I certainly spend a good amount of my time enjoying that approach to the music, but it’s not the same as…well, what does the song mean to you specifically at this moment? What would you like it to mean to me?
It’s similar to the difference between speaking to someone through an interpreter and speaking directly to them in their own language. Both are effective. But, when I’m talking about Crooked Still, I’m talking about the latter.
I have to admit, the first couple of times I saw Crooked Still live and heard their recorded music, I was missing something. Then I caught them at Pickathon one – if memory serves – chilly, overcast morning. It clicked. And, since then (was that ’07? ’08?), they have slowly but very surely become one of my favorite bands working in whatever style of music this is.
Then there were their performances at MerleFest this spring, where they pretty much reigned.
Ten years into their collaboration, they’ve hit a certain and unignorable stride. So, it’s hard to share news of their impending hiatus with anything less than disappointment. This is a great band whose artistry is on a level altogether rarely visited. Nickel Creek got there. Others informed by folk and bluegrass (a few by indie rock) continue to strive for it, but come off sounding a bit like the musical equivalent of stuttered Spanglish. Believe me, it’s easy, when you gather a group of well-trained musicians together, to steer toward complicated, unexpected arrangements and come out the other end sounding ostentatious and cacophonous. What’s difficult is reigning in egos and tightening solos – keeping everything attached as it all blows in the wind together. Pretty much for the last few years, Crooked Still has nailed that.
Alas – there are side projects to be focused on (Deadly Gentlemen and the Bee Eaters, to name a couple), songwriting careers to let flourish (O’Donovan scored some points earlier this year when Alison Krauss chose her song “Lay My Burden Down” for inclusion on Paper Airplane). Ten years into their run together, Crooked Still is planning to go their separate ways for a while after this fall’s tour.
Their publicist tells me it’s more of a hiatus than a breakup, that they’ll likely do select dates together now and then.
It’s fitting then that their anniversary EP, Friends of Fall, begins with Aoife O’Donovan singing from the softest reaches of her voice: “It’ll end too soon if it ends at all.” As is true of their other recordings, don’t mistake the breathiness for timidity. O’Donovan can wail when it’s necessary – just check her version of the folk hymn “When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round” – a tune she sings with the same kind of conviction she would have had she wrote the song herself last month. Her vocals often strike me like a spotlight moving around a dark room, long untouched. She sings as much from what’s veiled in darkness as from what’s smack in the middle of the light. After all, just because something’s in the shadows doesn’t mean it doesn’t bear mentioning.
The band, meanwhile, is at its finest for “The Peace of Wild Things/Dayblind” and the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”. Again, here they are taking an old song and doing it right. Not the way the Beatles did it; not so far in the opposite direction that it feels like a deliberate stretch. These guys are straight shooters. The fiddle solo on the Beatles tune is perfect. The licks-trading on “Dayblind” is clearly informed by traditional stringband music as much as by chamber music and whatever was on the speakers in the van…
On the one hand, it’s a real shame this band is splitting. On the other, that just means there will be five more forces in the world working toward this end. In the meantime, if you live in the Northeast or out west (or in Australia), you should catch one of their final-for-now dates. I’ll be settling for the seven-song EP. It drops Oct. 11.
Oct. 4 – The Turning Point – Piermont, NY
Oct. 5 – Higher Ground – Burlington, VT
Oct. 6 – Stone Mountain Arts Center – Brownfield, ME
Oct. 7 – The Strand Theatre – Rockland, ME
Oct. 8 – The Calvin Theatre – Northampton, MA
Oct. 9 – Club Helsinki – Hudson, NY
Oct. 11 – World Cafe Live – Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 12 – The Bell House – Brooklyn, NY
Oct. 14 & 15 – The Somerville Theater – Somerville, MA
Nov. 1 – The Triple Door (w/ Cahalen Morrison & Eli West) – Seattle, WA
Nov. 2 – The Aladdin Theater – Portland, OR
Nov. 4 – Unitarian Center – Ashland, OR
Nov. 5 – Arcata Theater (w/ the Bee Eaters) – Arcata, CA
Nov. 7 – Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness – Crescent City, CA
Nov. 9 – Kuumbwa Jazz Center – Santa Cruz, CA
Nov. 10 – Freight & Salvage – Berkeley, CA
Nov. 11 – The Clark Center – Arroyo Grand, CA
Nov. 12 – Rice Festival at Fischer Hall – Fischer, TX
Nov. 14 – Petit Campus – Montreal, QC
Nov. 17 – Taplin Auditorium – Princeton, NJ
Nov. 18 – Foothills Performing Arts Center – Oneonta, NY
Dec. 27 – Woodford Folk Festival – Queensland, AUS