Strangefolk Gospel According to Luke
Burlington, the northeastern Vermont City resting peacefully on Lake Champlain, is home to about 60,000 New Englanders. Besides thriving off the young spirit of college students during the school months, Burlington has also made a name for itself among the musically educated and aware. Burlington hosts a plethora of live music nightly, with loyal musicians sparking the passionate and spontaneous atmosphere.
Small bands dedicated to the art of improvisation and stretching musical boundaries provide Burlington with its mystique. The Jazz Mandolin Project, led by Jamie Masefield, paved their way through Burlington, and in the spring, they embarked on a national tour with Phish’s own Jon Fishman helping out on drums. The Dude of Life, who got his start by playing with Phish, has now attracted other Burlington musicians to complete his ensemble. Other big Burlington names such as Dave Grippo, Joey Somerville, and Gordon Stone may be recognized by their various performances with Phish, but the music they create individually and with their bands continue to keep the Burlington music scene alive and fresh. Phish may have been the band to draw attention to this lively Vermont City, they may be the first band with a major record label, but the loyalty Phish and all other Burlington musicians have to each other and to their roots has made Burlington one of the premiere musical Mecca’s in the country.
Strangefolk, the four-man team starting at the University of Vermont (sound familiar?) has quickly escalated up the Burlington scene with their dedication to the road, sweet harmonies, and intense jams. Strangefolk brews up some folky/acoustic flavor, spiced up with incredible psychedelic guitar leads. Their ability as a foursome to create tension through their increasing and decreasing tempo’s, then provide the musical release has earned them fans nation wide. Strangefolk has been doing the East Coast touring thing for a few years now, and they have been going out west since the summer of ’96. This summer they toured with String Cheese Incident and moe. as part of the Hoodoo Bash Tour. Following the Hoodoo Bash, they played some festival dates and some of their own gigs across the country. I was lucky enough to catch Strangefolk’s drummer, Luke Smith, late one night for a few questions. They had just finished playing Hookahville in Ohio, and are now getting ready for their own end of the summer festival in Vermont.
TM: So Luke, how was Hookahville?
LS: It was cool, definitely very crowded.
TM: Was it just about all Hookah fans?
LS: That’s the vibe I got. They draw a lot of people, six or seven thousand were there.
TM: Did you get a chance to play with them on stage at all?
LS: No, we didn’t. We had never met them before. I met two of the guys while I was there, but I had never met them before this weekend.
TM: So now you’re getting ready for your Garden of Eden festival?
LS: Yeah, Saturday night we’re doing a lot of older tunes, that come from when we first formed. The second night, we’re doing the regular Strangefolk deal, three sets.
TM: Any surprise?
LS: If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a surprise
TM: Is your end of the summer festival in the same spirit as Hookahville or the Lemonwheel?
LS: Well, this is the third year in a row, and it’s basically the same deal. It’s a little different this year though, because usually it’s at the end of the summer as a “welcome home” after our national tour, then we take a few weeks off. This year we had a few problems nailing down a site, so we had to push it back to labor day. It’s more of a sending off concert this year because right after we are getting on a plane to Vegas; starting our Fall tour. We are opening nine shows for Ratdog, I am psyched about that, then starting on our own from the West coast, heading back through Colorado, South, and then we are concluding the tour with a run of Northeast dates, culminating in a Halloween show at the Flynn Theater in Burlington.
TM: Will this (Eden) be your biggest show of the year?
LS: Since it is outdoors, there are no real constraints. We are expecting a good crowd.
TM: How does this show rank compared to New Years or Halloween on the band’s nervous or excitement level?
LS: We’ve been rehearsing a lot, I don’t know what that tells you. We have been playing tunes we haven’t done in awhile, tunes that have fallen out of the rotation, new tunes, new covers. We just want to play a really solid show. We want to thank our Vermont fans, and those who have been supporting us the hardest.
TM: How do you see the band evolving or maturing musically?
LS: I think we are maturing by just going out on the road and playing. It happens unconsciously by going on the road and playing hundreds of gigs. Not only playing, but also living together for three years. I can’t put my finger on it, but we are a lot tighter now than we were three years ago. It’s a result of touring, making better music, and becoming better musicians. I hope it continues for awhile.
TM: How do you change or work with songs to keep them from getting old when played day in and day out?
LS: A few songs are the same night in and night out, but most tunes are open- ended. I know that behind the drums, I try to put new life into songs. We try to keep the improvisational spirit alive, if we didn’t then it would be like going to McDonalds and flipping burgers all day long. It’s a drag. We like to keep things fresh, I guess that’s what makes us a jam band.
TM: When starting out were you shooting for this type of jam music, or did it just turn out that way?
LS: It was never a conscious decision. We all started at UVM, Jon and Erik actually grew up together in Maine. At UVM, I suppose we all shared many of the same influences. We all like to jam and take it out there.
TM: Tell me about some of these influences?
LS: Well, it’s broken up between all of us. Personally, I always loved the improvisational spirit of the Dead. I saw them a good handful of times. Being from the D.C. area, the majority of my Dead shows were Cap Centre and RFK runs. I continued to listen and love them in college, but my enthusiasm to catch them live waned a little as I was involved in other things in college, such as the desire to make my own music. The Beatles made great songs. I heard a lot of them growing up. The Police and Doors were big in grade school. The Beach Boys were big around my house. I also like lots of jazz, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone. Emotional music with a backbeat you can sink your teeth into. I like good songs and good jams. But I’m not into pointless open-ended jams. It can be a delicate balance.
TM: Do you like old Dead or new Dead?
LS: I like it all, each time period has it’s own reward. I love the Pigpen years, the early 70’s, the late 70’s. In ’85 and ’86 they were playing some burning stuff, I also loved Brent. The period before Touch of Grey broke was probably my most favorite because I got to be a part of it. I really love all these Dick’s Picks, they are all great. That One From The Vault recording was done at the Great American Music hall in San Francisco. We have played there also. It was an incredible feeling stepping on the stage, knowing they played there. Knowing they played THAT show there. We had good crowds at both (GAMH) shows, and I thought we played really well. That was two wins for us. We’re playing the Fillmore in October. Big Thrills.
TM: Do you have a lot of tapes?
LS: Yeah, I have a few Dead tapes. I’ve been collecting for years. What’s cool is being surrounded by fans who are into the same music. We get some really crisp stuff. Every once in a while people will just hand them to us. It’s a nice perk.
TM: How do you see yourself fitting into the jam band scene? How are you trying to make your name stand out?
LS: The music should speak for itself. We definitely share things in common, we are lumped together for a reason. Some people love to come to our shows again and again, dance, and have a good time. It is sort of a tribal release, we are all carrying pieces of the Dead’s torch. I don’t have a problem with being thrown into the jam band category, it’s good company. Our songs are very different though.
TM: What bands do you like to catch live when you have the chance?
LS: We bump into moe. a lot on the road. The guys in moe. are road warriors. They have been doing it longer then we have. They are very hard working and have the right attitude. They fall into the zone. Percy Hill are good friends of ours, and we love to see them. Belzhebha are friends of ours from Burlington, they are big into acid jazz and hip-hop. I like the Grey Boy Allstars too. They just lost their drummer though, he split and went to divinity school. Samples are fun to see. They lost their drummer as well, but the new one is breathing new life into them. Of course we’ve also made a few efforts to see the Phish out on the road.
TM: I first saw you at the Bayou in DC with my best friend, and your show blew me away. The opening Alaska jam was incredible, it is still one of the best jams I have ever heard. It was tough for my friend and I to listen to your demo after your live show.
LS: Yeah, we cut the demo our senior year at UVM. It was real basic and low key. We did all the tracking in about two days. I am really glad you saw a great performance, because sometimes we suck.
TM: Honestly, when we saw you again on the Hoodoo Bash Tour in Philly, it was a very average performance. Not much jamming.
LS: Yeah, I can see what you mean. That wasn’t one of our greatest performances. We were playing on everyone else’s gear. I was way in the back, and it was tough for me to hear what was going on. It’s a shame because that show was sold out. It was a big venue, and I guess we kinda dropped the ball.
It can be tough being on the road so much, there are so many factors. The four of us need to be in the right mood. We need rest. We live in the van, survive on turkey sandwiches, travel long distances, set up our stuff, do a four-hour sound check, and then put on a show.
I’m not complaining, I feel lucky to have made it this far. Some bands would kill to be in our position, but they can’t make ends meet. We want every show to be great, but it’s like an athletic team, we can’t always go undefeated.
TM: Tell me a little about your musical development?
LS: Well, I started playing drums in the fourth grade. My Dad played drums, and my brother played them as well. My brother played first and inspired me. Then he started playing guitar, and we would jam out in the basement. I started taking lessons in the fourth grade, then played drums in big band, school band deals through middle school. Then I stopped playing drums until my senior year of high school. Those previous three years were when I got into the Dead.
One of the main reasons I went to UVM was to play lacrosse. I met Reid during the first week of school. He was playing guitar in the dorm, and we jammed a little. I was playing some hand drums, and was definitely digging where Reid was coming from musically. Reid and Jon met at some on campus jam sessions, and started playing around Burlington as an acoustic duo. I didn’t get a second of time playing lax my freshman year. My sophomore year I gave it another go, but I have to say that my interest was beginning to wane just a bit. The UVM lax scenario was far from what I’d hoped it would be. During my sophomore year I broke my wrist. I figured going into my junior year not having played, it was time to call it quits. I heard a tape of Reid’s songs with Jon’s leads, and I thought it was beautiful. I knew that I was ready to hang up the gloves and turn my attention to music. Then I was ready to start playing drums seriously.
I practiced a lot during the rest of my time at UVM, and learned a ton about what I DIDN’T know, which was very important. A lot of that was due to a five day intensive course I took at a cool place called Drummers Collective in New York City during Spring Break of my Junior year.
TM: What’s next for the band? New Album? Live Album?
LS: No, not a live album. We just signed a record deal with Mammoth, which is based outside of Chapel Hill, NC. Very cool label. Good peeps. We’re all really excited about the deal. We are recording our first album for them in January. They picked up Weightless in Water, and they are re-releasing it nationally with a Mammoth stamp on it. This is very big news for us.
TM: Let’s look ahead, where would you like to be in 10-20 years?
LS: Tough call. I would love to still be playing. Touring nine months out of the year, probably not, but it all depends.
Look at the Dead, they are such an anomaly. That’s hardcore. You give up so much. You give up a normal life. It seems that that makes it very difficult to maintain relationships, but you gain so much as well. We are all following our dreams, something not many people are willing to do. The Great Adventure, taking it on the road.
Travis Martz is a Sophomore at Davidson College