Union Transfer


The Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters

Lake Street Dive

Fri, December 28, 2012

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 9:00 pm

Union Transfer

Philadelphia, PA


This event is all ages

The Infamous Stringdusters
The Infamous Stringdusters
Unlike rock 'n' roll, bluegrass music's boundaries are often defined in very narrow terms and that has caused some bands to carefully consider their place within the genre. But, in order to survive, everything must evolve... even bluegrass. Enter the Infamous Stringdusters, the very model of a major modern bluegrass band.

“At a certain point in our career, there was hesitation in calling us a bluegrass band,” guitarist Andy Falco admits. “These days, we’re much more comfortable with that label.” Banjo man Chris Pandolfi echoes the point: “We love bluegrass, but we have been influenced by other genres as much, if not more. When it comes to making music, we always try to be a blank slate and give new songs whatever they need to come to life. We just try to make something good, something that is true to who we are.”

On Laws of Gravity, that's exactly what the Infamous Stringdusters — Andy Hall (dobro), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), and Travis Book (double bass), in addition to Falco and Pandolfi — have done. Their seventh studio set further proves that the band's collective whole is far greater than the sum of its individual parts, as the song selection and pitch-perfect performances weighs the Stringdusters' appeal to traditional fans against their musical quest to attract new listeners. It's a balance that comes naturally to the band.

Here, trad-leaning tunes like “Freedom,” “A Hard Life Makes a Good Song,” “Maxwell,” and “1901: A Canyon Odyssey” pick hard and soar high, letting trade-off solos and layered vocal harmonies work their magic. As it continues on, Gravity reaches its roots deep and wide, but never sacrifices the wings of the band, as exemplified in tracks like “Back Home” and “This Ol' Building” which pull from the blues and R&B strands of the Stringdusters' musical DNA.

“The specific feelings in those songs lend themselves to a soulful sound,” Hall explains. “The longing of 'Back Home,' the passion of 'This Ol' Building.' Slowing things down a bit, but still having a real edge and passion is the essence of that. And probably a bit of maturity on our part brings out a more authentic soulful sound.”

Indeed, the Stringdusters have worked hard to become the band they are or, perhaps, the band they wanted and knew themselves to be — a self-discovery process to which Laws of Gravity bears witness. “Once you start to move out of that, a lot of good things happen,” Pandolfi says. “You know who you are, and how to do your thing with confidence and experience. This colors the songwriting process as much as anything. We work so hard on the music, but it's not hard work. It's really the payoff, and it comes more naturally with time.”

Letting the past inform and the present propel, the Stringdusters' style and substance are uniquely Infamous. Since 2007, the band's ever-evolving artistry and boldly creative collaborations — including Ryan Adams, Joss Stone, Bruce Hornsby, Joan Osborne, and Lee Ann Womack — have pushed them past the edges of traditional acoustic music and carved out a musical niche all their own in the hearts of fans and critics, alike. Over the past couple of years, they released 2015's Undercover, a covers EP, followed by 2016's Ladies & Gentlemen, an album featuring multiple female guest vocalists. Those projects may have seemed like artistic tangents, but they actually proved to be a pretty direct route from there to Gravity.

“Being singers and songwriters, we were really ready to put some of our own songs out with us singing them,” Falco says. “In the same way solo projects can take you away to be able to come back and feel refreshed, the last two records have done that and we were ready to hit the studio with our songs sung by us.”

“We had much more of a vision for how we wanted this album to come together than we did with past projects,” Pandolfi adds. “We got the music, including all our individual parts, to a place where we knew we could go into the studio and just let it happen live. We are a band. We play live together and, more than any one song or achievement, this is what we do. Now we have an album that captures that.”

Part of Gravity's vision involved not road-testing and adapting the songs before taking them into the studio. That's a new step in the Stringdusters' process which starts with filtering through and whittling down a wealth of material to the best of the batch. “We take those 20 or so songs and take them to the next level as a band,” Pandolfi explains. “So much gets accomplished in this writing/arranging stage. It's where songs become Stringduster songs. In the end, we share the songwriting credit because of all the collective work that goes into this (and every other) aspect of being in a band.”

“We may try the song in a number of different feels before landing on something that works for the sound of the band. If a song is good, it usually comes together fairly quickly,” Halls says, adding, “But we’re writing more diverse stuff these days, so some experimentation is always welcome.”
While the new record boasts a single instrumental track, “Sirens,” where the five fellas really cut loose on their respective strings, the vocals across the other dozen tracks tie this music to the bluegrass tradition in an even more profound way. “Singing is a big part of bluegrass music,” Falco says. “It’s an important part of the sound and I think that part of music gets overlooked a lot. The singing should convey the emotion of the song. That's what we aim to do. One could argue that it's more important than the playing.”

Out beyond Laws of Gravity, the Infamous Stringdusters have an even broader vision. “We just want to keep making original music, keep evolving as people and musicians, and continue to help our amazing community of fans grow and enjoy this experience together,” Pandolfi says. “When we hear from people that our music or the community around our music has helped them find joy in life, it makes everything seem very worthwhile.”

Falco adds, “We love playing together and that’s the reason we’ve been doing it for as long as we have. We want to able to do this until we’re old and grey. That’s really it — making music together and continuing to evolve our brand of bluegrass music.”
Lake Street Dive
Lake Street Dive
A “side pony,” the hairstyle that Lake Street Dive’s Nonesuch debut is named after, is the kind of one-sided Cubism-worthy ’do that requires unwavering self-confidence to pull off. The foursome is not referring to the demure, swept-to-the-side fashion Taylor Swift occasionally sports, but more the outré look of, say, Napoleon Dynamite’s friend Deb. However, a side pony, for them, is really a metaphor for their philosophy and personality as a band, one that seamlessly incorporates R&B, pop, ’60s-era rock, and soul into a unique, dance-party-ready mix. As bassist Bridget Kearney puts it, “When we were settling on the album title, that one just stuck out to us as embodying the band’s spirit. We’ve always been this somewhat uncategorizable, weird, outlying genre-less band. That’s the statement we wanted to make with this record: be yourself.”

Guitarist and trumpeter Michael “McDuck” Olson echoes her sentiment: “It came to mean something larger to us than the original image. The line, ‘I’m just living my life, I rock a side pony’ has a literal connotation: ‘Don’t judge me for my silly hairstyle.’ But it has also come to mean anything you’re doing for the sheer joy of it. We have always ‘rocked our side pony.’ Now we have a convenient phrase for it.”

The members of Lake Street Dive—named after an avenue of seedy bars in Olson’s native Minneapolis—met in 2004 as students at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. Powerhouse singer Rachael Price fronted the quartet and drummer Michael Calabrese filled out the rhythm section. Though they were all studying jazz, their work together took an altogether different shape, informed by their love of classic pop, particularly from the ’60s, when pop could mean the Beatles, the Supremes, Dusty Springfield, or the Beach Boys. They recognized the virtuosity—and timelessness—in the efforts of studio musicians like Muscle Shoals’ legendary Swampers and L.A.’s Wrecking Crew. Similarly, their original repertoire combined musical sophistication with an easy going groove.

For several years, the group was a part-time proposition, with everyone living in different cities. (Calabrese and Olson eventually returned to Boston, while Price and Kearney migrated to Brooklyn.) In 2012, Lake Street Dive became a full-time combo after a YouTube video of the quartet acoustically performing the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” on a suburban Boston street corner went viral. The arrangement was slowed-down and torchy, a little melancholic, more late-night New Orleans jazz than AM radio pop, and upwards of three million people were enchanted by it.

Producer T Bone Burnett, as impressed as everyone else, invited Lake Street Dive to perform on the 2013 Another Day, Another Time concert event he curated at New York City’s Town Hall to celebrate the Coen brothers’ folk revival-themed movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. Lake Street Dive made the most of its one-song slot, with its performance of the Olson-penned “You Go Down Smooth,” garnering morning-after acclaim from the New Yorker, the Daily News, and the New York Times. The band looked striking too, like a retro lounge band that could have sprung from the surreal imagination of David Lynch. That star-making moment has been preserved on the Nonesuch soundtrack to Showtime’s documentary of the concert.

Side Pony, recorded in the winter of 2015, has an exhilarating feel from start to finish. For listeners familiar with Lake Street Dive, it’s a natural evolution of the band’s sound. The arrangements offer a knowing nod to the past while the lyrics tackle the pitfalls of modern romance in a manner that’s often more playful than rueful. And Price’s vocals have a teasing swagger to them. Neither her heart nor her hairstyle will be messed with.

Singer Price agrees: “We’re the happy breakup band. We like to write about our lives and real things but we always like music that makes you dance and lifts you up. And those things don’t need to be separate from one another. A sad song doesn’t need to be in a minor key and slow. That’s something we try to blend and do as much as possible.” The album track “Spectacular Failure,” she notes, is sort of a “cheerful parody” of a hapless lothario. “The story and specifics aren’t true but it was inspired by a real person who we turned into this mythical, terrible character.”

Side Pony is produced by the eclectic Nashville-based Dave Cobb, whose credits include Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and the Secret Sisters. Cobb’s working method was to keep the recording fast and loose, as live-in-the-studio as possible, and to embrace the unorthodox.

This provided Lake Street Dive with a welcome challenge: an opportunity to experiment with sound and arrangements and to collaborate on songwriting in a way the band had never attempted before. For earlier discs, the band members each wrote their own material and by the time they’d all arrive in the studio, the songs would have been meticulously arranged—and then the group would simply record them.

But Cobb encouraged them to bring only the most basic demos. The band showed up in Nashville with a lot of ideas, 28 songs, for their first session, and quickly discarded more than half. After a break from recording to go tour Australia, the process took an even more freewheeling turn as the band labored collectively to come up with the final cuts for the disc, including the title track, the infectious sing-along “Hell Yeah,” and the early ’70s-styles funk of “Can’t Stop.”

At one point, Cobb encouraged the band to scour the dollar bins at used record shops, and then spin their finds in the studio, dropping the needle at random in search of inspiration. “Can’t Stop,” in particular, grew out of that exercise, spurred on by the wobbly sound of a warped old soul record they’d unearthed.

Kearney explains, “Dave wanted us to come without any preconceived idea of how we were going to do the songs, so we made only campfire-style sketch demos—me, McDuck, and Mike strumming guitar and all of us singing the melody. We could then easily slow a song down, change the chorus to minor—we could make some pretty broad strokes in the studio, just following a much more intuitive approach to finishing a song.” She deadpans, “We used to be stiffer, more analytical conservatory kids. Now we like to use our conservatory skills for good, not evil.”

Calabrese adds, “We would be working on a tune, trying stuff out, and Dave would stop us in the middle of the song and say, ‘Let’s try it this way instead.’ His process was mercurial, changing direction quickly, going from ‘we don’t have anything’ to ‘we’ve got it!’” He continues, “We weren’t always so sure. But then we’d listen to a comp and we’d agree that he’d heard something we hadn’t. That’s what good producers do: they capture lightning in a bottle.”

Price says, “We realized working in the studio this way that we each have our own strengths: Bridget is a really fantastic lyricist. She’s fast and she can come up with a lot of ideas. McDuck is the same way with harmony, with changes and chords. He can come up with a lot of options in a short period of time. It was great to see, through this particular recording process, how beautifully our individual strengths complement each other.”

—Michael Hill
Venue Information:
Union Transfer
1026 Spring Garden St.
Philadelphia, PA, 19123