The Meaning of Della Mae
Okay, so full disclosure: I started out to write a review of Della Mae’s June 11 show at suburban Philadelphia’s Ardmore Music Hall that would be completely devoid of the most common descriptor of the band over their first three albums: “ . . . the all-female bluegrass band . . .” Because what hell does that matter anyway? Aren’t we post-gender? The mandolin player rips, the singer can belt it and then make you shiver, the fiddler is a virtuoso, the guitar player absolutely shreds, the new stand-up bass player really drives it, plus their harmonies and their songs are beautiful. So why do I even need pronouns?
And then my enlightened 8-year-old daughter walks in as I’m watching YouTube footage of the band and immediately says “wow dad, that’s cool—they’re all girls?”
So it matters.
Should it? No. Maybe. As far along as we think we are, no one would argue that Della Mae’s profile is common.
Their music sure isn’t.
In a recent interview with Acoustic Guitar Magazine, founder Kimber Ludiker talked about how putting together a band to showcase female improvisors would be the realization of what her dream job would be. I’m not sure her position on it, but from here, it seems to be working.
The 15-song opening set for the Felice Brothers was a testament to what 200+ nights a year on the road yields. Della Mae is a tight, communicative, bonded band who, as you watch closely, does a remarkable thing: they root for each other. It starts with what all great improvisational bands do—they really listen. It continues through the small moments like when mandolin-player Jenni Lyn Gardner was a touch out of position for a harmony part, and gave singer Celia Woodsmith a firm pat on the hip to inch towards the mike. Woodsmith didn’t miss a beat, but the wry and genuine smile that passed between them was telling. It carries over in how Ludiker gives a respectful nod to flat picker Courtney Hartman after another flawless run. And it extends all the way to how the band introduces itself, one member at a time showcasing another, and giving a small but personal detail about her bandmate.
Like their self-titled album, Della Mae’s show is at times ethereal and haunting, like the Hartman-penned “Long Shadow,” then they turn on a dime and shake out a Tammy Wynette-style burner like “Shambles.” Seconds later, they are in lockstep on the folk tune “Boston Town,” which is the best thing they’ve put on record. The track shines a light on both their sense of melody and their chops, and simultaneously makes a statement with a perfect tone. Can a song be powerful and understated and historical and topical all at once? Apparently.
Near the end of their set, Woodsmith was doing the obligatory opener move of playing up the headliner’s coming set. A loud voice in the back responded “THEY CAN WAIT!” When I looked over to see where it came from, a big, slightly drunk dude in sandals—wearing a Felice Brothers T-shirt—was grinning ear-to ear.
And really that’s the sense you get of Della Mae. They do what the best bands do. They aren’t preachy or flashy or jaded or self-promoting. They just mean something. And they kick ass. You watch them and you want the moment to last.
The hope is that they keep doing it together for a long time and we get to see how it evolves. The hope is that they keep being led by the lyric in that great old Osborne song that gives them their name: “ . . . she’s still not satisfied.”