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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2012/09/29
by David Steinberg

New Tunes from NWSS

Northwest String Summit isn’t just a showcase for Yonder Mountain String Band to play. There are exciting developments for those who like a cross between improvisational music and bluegrass. Some of these bands have been around for a while and are just now on the rise (Greensky Bluegrass comes to mind) but every year the Strummit seems to find a few more. These bands made such an impression on me that I found myself buying their entire discographies [1]. While the instrumentation might be that of traditional bluegrass, musicians are discovering new ways of exploring this material. These four bands are currently fascinating me.

Elephant Revival

Bridget Law performs with Elephant Revival at the 10th annual Northwest String Summit, 7/24/11 photo by Melissa Steinberg

Perhaps the most traditional of the group, Elephant Revival is a quintet out of Nederland, CO. Their albums focus mainly on the beautiful melodic side of music. Songs such as “Cosmic Pulse,” “Currach,” and “Sing to the Mountain” are outright stunning, with amazing coed harmonies blending very well with their fiddling. Perhaps most impressive in their live show is “Down to the Sea,” a song that starts slow but builds to an intense peak. Between the mellow songs, and the Irish influenced faster numbers, this is perfect Sunday morning listening; it’s far better than listening to announcers explain the latest referee fiasco, that’s for sure. [2]

Shook Twins

It might just be possible to have too much charisma. The band comes by the name honestly. The heart of the band is Laurie and Katelyn Shook. They’re both very attractive and have ridiculously impressive stage presence. Apparently you can develop a very cool rapport if you spend time in the womb together. Between that and their bizarre instrumentation – Laurie has a giant metal egg with beads or something inside it that makes percussive sounds when thrown while Katelyn sometimes sings into a telephone receiver which creates bizarre effects on her vocals – it could be easy to dismiss them as some sort of novelty band.

That would be a mistake as they also are very solid songwriters. Sure they might be tackling topics such as a chicken that lays a really big egg and desiring time travel so they could go back to the 60s and get really good acid, but “Eyes to the Polls” does a great job of showing the world through the eyes of the one who came of age in the Bush era recession. “And they’re saying that it’s gonna get worse/They’re saying it’s gonna be hard/And they’re saying it’s gonna get tough/Before it gets easy,” just feels like 2009. Mind you, the whole thing is set to a jaunty pace so they aren’t completely falling victim to picture they’re setting. If I had to make a bet about which band from the jamgrass world could cross over into mainstream popularity, the Shooks would be my call.

The Absynth Quintet

The Absynth Quintet performs during the 11th annual Northwest String Summit’s band competition, 8/10/12. Photo by Melissa Steinberg

One way that the String Summit promotes new bands is to have a band competition. Both in 2011 and 2012, the audience reaction was different from the judges. Last year the crowd went for the Shook Twins. This year, the loudest cheer went for The Absynth Quintet.

What the Qunitet is selling is bluegrass with a dose of surrealism. They use their harmonies as a weapon. Take their opener “Gadjo Train,” which starts out as a normal enough bluegrass song until they get to the bizarre singalong that is the bridge. The change was even more powerful for its complete lack of foreshadowing. That’s what Absynth can do. They have all of these good high-energy bluegrass songs like “Liam’s Mail” to set expectations and then they wreck them. Perhaps “One Blue Iota” sums up the band perfectly. It starts out as a fun little song that works as a sea adventure, wanders through a mostly instrumental section, and ends up in a bizarre repeated chant of “Down, down, floating down, down down away.” Be warned, if you listen to this song, you will find yourself muttering, “Down, down, dropping down, down down, top of the ground,” at random intervals. If They Might Be Giants were influenced by bluegrass, they’d write songs like this.

Fruition

The Shook Twins join Mimi Naja and the rest of Fruition during their daytime set at the 11th annual Northwest String Summit, 8/11/12. Photo by Melissa Steinberg

Before this year I had never heard of Fruition. However, as soon as I arrived at the String Summit, it seemed like they were all anyone wanted to mention. Sure there were three nights of Yonder and Seven Walkers were coming and Karl Denson was headlining but Fruition was playing! Normally I’m a bit jaded about such claims but Horning’s Hideout tends to make me more optimistic.

They had an early afternoon set on the mainstage, usually a time for a few hundred people to chill out and hoop and lie in the sun to some tunes. Instead, an army of Fruition fans paraded in. This definitely made me curious.

Most of us have met that incredibly enthusiastic person, the type that loves everybody and everything, that gets thrilled by pretty mundane events. They’re the kind of person that has mottos like, “Hey, check this out!” and, “This is so cool!” They get mocked by their friends who roll their eyes whenever they’re mentioned, and yet their attitude is quite contagious. You can suddenly find yourself getting thrilled over a caterpillar that’s walking across the street, or some random science fact they just explained. That’s Fruition.

Not many bands can get away with talking about how much they love the crowd without it sounding like complete pandering, but when you say it with complete sincerity it works. They have a song called “(Hallelujah) Portland Bound” that turns a road trip back home into an epic celebration. Even for someone like me who doesn’t always get along with the PDX [3] finds himself going, “Hell yeah! PORTLAND!”

Downloads from the String Summit

Elephant Revival 2012

Shook Twins Band Competition 2011

The Absynth Quintet Band Competition 2012

Fruition Mainstage set 2012

[1] Note to younger readers: artists can actually get money from creating music due to fans “purchasing” the tunes either in the form of physical media or downloads. Look it up. This really used to happen.

[2] As a Seahawks fan, I decided to just try to embrace the gift Monday Night Football victory. I nicknamed it, “The Completely 100% legitimate Victory of Glory!”

[3] Horning’s doesn’t count because it’s in North Plains, OR. It’s only really in city limits itself that weird things keep on happening to me.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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