Two Words: Crooked Still

Two more words: Freakin’ awesome. Crooked Still just celebrated 10 years as a band.  10 years.  Ten!  I had no idea that they had been playing together for so long.  Rather, I had no concept of just how long their music had been shaping the sounds of folk.

Crooked Still

Ten years ago, I was entering eighth grade.  I barely knew what jazz was, and my close-minded idea of fiddle music was something that dumb hicks played in the hills of the south.  Not exactly high standards.  If someone had played me a crooked still album back then, with their brilliant instrumentation and original interpretations of tunes, I would’ve taken the quality and potential of folk music more seriously.

In order to celebrate their ten years as a band, and thus throw a last huzzah before separating to pursue individual musical projects, C.S. decided to have a ten-show tour in October, ending up with a two-night spectacular at the Somerville Theater in their hometown of Boston, MA.  I snagged a ticket for the second evening and was whisked away to a passionate world of newgrass fans. I heard that the musical lineup was different each night, so here’s the rundown of the tunes played at my evening, and their albums:

  1. Little Sadie – Shaken By A Low Sound
  2. The Peace Of Wild Things/Dayblind – Friends of Fall (EP)
  3. When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round – Friends of Fall (EP)
  4. Sometimes In This Country – Some Strange Country
  5. Half Of What We Know – Some Strange Country
  6. Distress –  Some Strange Country
  7. Flora – Hop High
  8. Locust In The Willow – Some Strange Country
  9. [Some tunes I missed after Intermission]
  10. Ain’t No Grave – Shaken By A Low Sound
  11. You Were Gone – Some Strange Country
  12. Orphan Girl – Hop High
  13. Last Fair Deal Gone Down – Hop High
  14. Mountain Jumper – Shaken By A Low Sound
  15. Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ – Shaken By A Low Sound
  16. Encore: You Got The Silver – Some Strange Country
  17. Encore: Shady Grove – Hop High

And after the show, the band marched out from backstage through the crowd in front of the theater to jam on Angeline the Baker, on their Hop High album.

I had a lot of different reactions to the tunes that night.  By the second half my ale had sunk in, and I was pleasantly sinking deeper myself into the tunes and amorous mood of the crowd.  I remember being struck by the lofty beauty of The Peace Of Wild Things/Dayblind because the harmonic choices are unexpected.  The lyrics are the poem by Wendell Berry, with original music and fiddle tune by Crooked Still.  It’s an interesting composition, and characteristic of Crooked Still in that it pushes the definition of the style and genre that the band plays.  This is a full-out through composed piece of music with a groove and a banjo.

The Band! It is comprised of Aiofe O’Donovan on vocals and guitar, Brittany Haas on 5-string fiddle, Tristan Clarridge on cello (and Rushad Eggleston in the first incarnation, who was reunited with them that weekend for the anniversary), Dr. Gregory Liszt on banjo, and Corey DeMario on bass.

Crooked Still

One wonderful moment from the evening that stands out (Besides the double cello action of Rushad and Tristan together, or Dr. Gregory Liszt’s sweet dance moves on each banjo solo) was right after the second song, when Aoife O’Donovan said into the microphone, “I feel very calm, and it’s not just the tequila I have onstage with me.”  Delightful!  And also, thought-provoking for me.  One characteristic of this music and other sounds and concerts like it, is the relationship between players and audience.  It’s familiar, close, and intimate in a way not many other musical forms can create.  I can’t say whether it’s the open, you’re-welcome-in-my-house attitude of the players, the sincerity of the fans, or the origins of the songs themselves that creates this ambience.  The fact that Crooked Still and Friends (that includes fans) can re-create the feel of a house party in the 900 seat Somerville Theater main stage room is nothing to be scoffed at.

Though I didn’t consider myself a hardcore Crooked Still fan (definitely not one of the people who has been following them all 10 years), I felt welcome by the environment, and encouraged to let my voice be heard with a whoop or whistle at each hot lick and hum of approval at a familiar ballad.  I felt that Crooked Still introduced me to some new favorites from their albums that I hadn’t listened to enough. It was clear by the audience’s reaction that any song that was only half-familiar to me was one that should be committed to memory.  I thought each player’s performance was emotional and vibrant.  They were giving it their all on every tune, and loving every minute of it.

I’ll leave you with a neat story: After the second half, which I came back late to due to a long line at the ladies’, I walked down to my seat in the dark to find someone sitting in it.  No big deal, there was a free one right in front of it.  The woman asked if she was in my seat, and gladly gave it up after I affirmed.  I sat down and was about to enjoy the next song, when the couple sitting next to me hurredly got my attention.  The husband was waving me over, trying to tell me something.  Not sure what the urgency was about, and noticing he had been heavily enjoying some beer himself, I prepared to ignore him.  The wife leaned over and whispered, “He wants to tell you that that woman that was in your seat is Brittany Haas’ mother.”

Oh.  Well.  That changes EVERYTHING. The mother of the old-time fiddle champion of the world can sit wherever she damn well pleases.  So I moved over and signaled that Ms. Haas could have her seat back.  I think the view was better from there.  As she sat down excitedly, I leaned over and told her that I had taken a few lessons from Brittany a while ago, so letting her mom have a good seat was the least I could do.  It was a much more entertaining second half sitting next to Barbara Haas, who snuck a few pictures (didn’t we all?) and gave behind the scenes details on some songs as they came up.  Delightful!

I’m very happy I got the opportunity to see Crooked Still live, because it helped me appreciate the skill of those amazing musicians, and appreciate what a unique and fantastic experience seeing a live show is, too.  Live music is definitely losing popularity, and though it does have something to do with the convenience of television and the internet in your own home, I’m tempted to make an argument for people just not having the emotional energy or stamina to deal with the event of going to see a band play beautiful, sorrowful, vivacious music at a show and cheer madly alongside fellow fans.  It’s a big thing to put yourself through, and I feel people are slowly becoming emotionally distanced thanks to the safety of home entertainment.  I encourage everyone to see live music at least once a month if you can – just for the sake of exercising your spiritual and emotional energies!

In conclusion, enjoy live music, and check out Crooked Still’s new EP, Friends of Fall.  It’s fantastic, and it’ll definitely whet your appetite for their next appearance, whenever in the distant future that may be.  To C.S. I say, good luck with each of your musical projects next year!  Get together again soon.

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