The Stray Birds Stretch Their Wings in Berkeley
Also Performing: Jordie Lane
Midway through a sweeping tour of the US, The Stray Birds landed in Berkeley on a stormy Friday night to play a spirited set of bluegrass, newgrass, and acoustic folk. Rain and wind weren’t going to stop the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based trio, who are another force of nature. At once scrappy and virtuosic, the Stray Birds— Maya de Vitry on guitar, fiddle, and banjo; Oliver Craven on guitar and fiddle; and Charlie Muench on upright bass — are classically trained and modern-minded. Punk rock enough to relish driving cross country and playing shows in any kind of weather (“This is nothing,” de Vitry observed, of the storm that had wreaked havoc on the Bay Area for most of the day), their set featured originals from their two CDs peppered with reverential covers of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Nanci Griffith, and Townes Van Zandt. Think Avett Brothers combined with Hazel Dickens and you start to get the idea of what the Stray Birds have on offer. Each song is an opportunity to display their considerable chops, nod to their influences, and otherwise build a musical bonfire out of lead lines, fiddle riffs, and soaring harmonies.
This was the Stray Birds’ second appearance at the Freight, another stop on their Best Medicine tour (“Now it’s our ‘West Medicine Tour’” Craven joked, to the groans of his band mates). The tour was named for their second CD, released last October on Yep Roc Records, to much acclaim. Trading off leading songs, each band member can easily stand on his or her own. but de Vitry is perhaps the most prolific writer of group, covering a range of territory from steely resolve (“Never for Nothing”) to protest (“The Bells”). Craven pulls at the heart with songs like “Come Back Today So I Sleep Tonight” and “San Antonio,” while Muench pays due homage (Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #7”). With no shortage of musical cards to play, The Stray Birds’ ace is nonetheless their seamless three-part harmony, which elevates each song to new heights.
Opener Jordie Lane‘s soulful sound was another revelation. Feeling more an extension of the main act than support, the Melbourne, Australia, native won the audience over with a fierce performance of heartfelt originals, backed up with banter about falling in love with a sandwich in New York and experimenting with the ‘Whole 30 Diet’ “while hanging out in LA.” Wringing every ounce of sound from his acoustic guitar and adding percussion with his feet, Lane served up a big sound that seemed larger than one person. The Stray Birds wisely brought him back onstage late in their set to share duties on his song “Black Diamond.”
“Funny where your feet fall / funny who you meet,” Lane sang earlier in the night. These musicians are all moving fast and clearly have a lot of places they can go. Catch them if you can.