Infamous Stringdusters Bring ‘Newgrass’ to Bowery Ballroom
Last Thursday evening, Fruition and the Infamous Stringdusters brought their feel-good harmony and virtuosic jamming to the Bowery Ballroom for a night of heartfelt Big Apple bluegrass. The groups played a finely tuned, well-received evening of Americana that walked the line between bluegrass traditionalism and jam-band improvisation.
Fruition, the Portland-based quintet, were an affable group of baseball cap wearing banjo punks that at times recalled the early, unhinged days of the pre-Rick Rubin Avett Brothers. On their set closer “Never Again,” their songwriting matched the anxious anthems of the Avetts’: “How I loved you you will never know,” sang the group in unison.
The young group has a little ways to go in the ways of songwriting, with lead singer Mimi Naja occasionally tripping up on fortune cookie cliches with lines like “all I know about being alive is that life’s worth living,” towards the end of her set. But the band was incredibly well received, and seems to have quite bright things in store. Perhaps more so than the night’s headlining act, Fruition is a group deeply concerned with traditional song craft and melody; the inevitable jams that concluded many of their songs seemed supplementary, not primary.
The Infamous Stringdusters play a recognizable form of no-frills modern bluegrass, or newgrass, as it’s sometimes called. “The Stringdusters have ignored purism, applied their virtuosity to untraditional tunes and structures, and found a wide audience along the jam-band circuit,” wrote New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles in a 2012 review of the band. Or, more succinctly: “They’re like bluegrass, but they’re not hicks,” as one long-time fan explained before the Infamous Stringdusters took the stage.
The crowd – a diverse range of concert-goers from college sophomores to granddads – was a hillbilly-hippie hybrid, with equal parts tie dye, overalls, and baseball caps present in the audience. There was fist-pumping, hand clapping all around, and the crowd was there to actually enjoy themselves, something that need not be taken for granted. Thursday night’s show had easily the most dancing (and even more generous swaying) that this reporter has ever seen at the indie-rock mainstay Bowery Ballroom.
The Stringdusters’ lyrics are often irresistible, pleasant takes on nature and heartbreak and well-trodden re-hashings of common traditional American music tropes. There are lots of suns and winds and mountain-tops mentioned, plenty of Southern states name dropped throughout their songwriting, which almost always lies in the background of the band’s magnetic instrumental breakdowns that shape and enliven each song. The line-up, which consists of a fiddle, dobro, guitar, banjo, and standup bass, allows for plenty of typical bluegrass instrumental breakdowns and well-oiled improvisation.
Unlike the Chris Thile-helmed Punch Brothers and the Ketch Secor-led Old Crow Medicine Show, the Infamous Stringdusters are, by all accounts, a band in the fullest sense, with four of the group’s five members sharing equal weight on vocals and instrumental solos throughout the evening. It’s for the better: the band, lacking a clear-cut star vocalist, sounds best when harmonizing and working as a coherent whole, both vocally and instrumentally. But the band is typically at its finest when the instruments are doing most of the singing.
Returning to the Bowery Ballroom once again for the semi-hometown crowd (three of the five members are New York natives), the band appeared humbled, honored and relaxed as they chose to pay tribute to semi-local banjo legend Pete Seeger, who passed away in January. Guitarist Andy Falco sang a straightforward, if staid, version of “If I Had A Hammer” midway through the first set. The self-assured, restrained first set from the group climaxed during “Like I Do,” when fiddle player Jeremy Garrett led the group through a moody, dark instrumental breakdown that ebbed and flowed, changing directions every few bars, thrilling the crowd with each new twist.
Slightly less adventurous songs like “Get It While You Can,” sung by Book, and “The Place That I Call Home,” were finely tuned, well executed cookie-cutter jam-roots songwriting, full of biscuits and gravy and homesick rambling.
The group returned after a thirty minute intermission to an adoring crowd eager for the group to delve further into its back catalog after a first set that was largely comprised of new material off the band’s new album Let It Go, which just dropped yesterday. The Dusters’ did not disappoint, promptly playing crowd-pleaser “The Hitchhiker” from 2012’s Silver Sky. The song brought about one of the night’s latter highlights, when Andy Falco, having just given a loving shoutout to his parents who were sitting in the balcony, delivered an extended, expertly executed, dramatic guitar solo that brought about one of the loudest, and most deserved, ovations of the evening.
The Dusters are fraternal and friendly, a band so refreshingly unassuming it’s no wonder they rarely, if ever, receive the type of attention from music journalists and publications that their close contemporaries regularly receive. But it was hard not to be won over by the band’s straightforward humility and generosity. Several band members greeted family members in the crowd, with banjo player Chris Pandolfi thanking his brother in the audience for introducing him to old-time, bluegrass music. “It’s nice to be back in the oldest and largest city in the world,” exclaimed bassist Travis Book on stage last night. It sounded like he meant it.