Over the next few weeks Blabber’n’Smoke will be looking at albums recently released by artists who will be appearing at the forthcoming Glasgow Americana Festival. The tenth anniversary of the festival this year’s line up is particularly strong and we believe tickets are going fast so have a look here if you don’t want to miss out.
First off is the latest album from Pennsylvania trio The Stray Birds, regular visitors to Glasgow. The past twelve months have seen a significant increase in their profile; signed to the highly regarded Yep Roc Records, proclaimed by many as the highlight of last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival and their song, Best Medicine (the title song from their previous album) named song of the year at The International Folk Music Awards. On record and in concert the trio ((Maya de Vitry -vocals, guitar, banjo, fiddle, Oliver Craven – vocals, guitar, fiddle and Charles Muench – vocals, double bass, banjo) epitomised the new wave of Appalachian influenced folk music, the three of them bunched around a single mic, their songs rooted in tradition but addressing current issues. de Vitry’s spectacular voice in particular has the ability to simultaneously make the past come alive and cause time to stand still for the audience who are transfixed.
For a band who seem to be on the up escalator it’s a brave move then to mess with the winning formula that got them there in the first place, however that’s exactly what The Stray Birds have done with Magic Fire. There are several firsts for them here. While they engineered and produced their previous efforts this time they’ve invited Grammy award winning producer Larry Campbell to helm the record. In tandem with this the trio invited percussionist Shane Leonard to join them for the album while broadening their own music palette bringing in keyboards and electric guitar. By luck or intention these bold steps have paid off in gold. Leonard, really a multi instrumentalist and songwriter in his own right fits right in, his various styles suiting the new direction while Campbell, a veteran who has produced Dylan, Willie Nelson, Levon Helm and Paul Simon, captures their new found folk rock sound with some panache, adding polish without smoothing out the grit.
There’s a transitional feel to the album. Several songs cleave to their established style. The opening Shining In the Distance has de Vitry proclaiming over a strummed guitar before percussion and accordion weigh in on a spiritual song, de Vrity as impassioned as Odetta while her fiddle solo reminds one of their earthier roots. Fossil aches with plaintive steel guitar as de Vrity launches her rich loamy voice as on Best Medicine, her yearning verses leading into an uplifting chorus while Mississippi Pearl is a wonderful evocation of a woman’s voyage of discovery heading to “the edge of the world.” Here the new line up works brilliantly, the halting acoustic instruments, creamy pedal steel, restrained guitar breaks and sensitive drums gelling, the harmonies heavenly. It’s a song that here recalls the cream of 70’s LA country rock (Linda Ronstadt would have killed for it) but one can imagine the unadorned trio still captivating an audience without the sublime added instrumentation.
As for heading in a new direction there’s a sense that the band are at a crossroads. They head off in one direction with a gritty country rock feel, telecasters and fiddle over a shuffling beat recalling artists such as Wildflowers era Tom Petty on the instantly likeable Third Day In A Row (with Craven’s voice uncannily like Petty’s). The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band come to mind on the very danceable Sabrina and the deft quick step of Sunday Morning while Hands Of Man slides along with skirling fiddle to the fore and reminds one of Classic Fairport Convention. There’s a fork to the left leading to classic country pop as Craven and de Vrity hold hands on the Everly’s styled Somehow, adding themselves to the list of classic country harmony duos but they head back to the mainline for a couple of songs that do raise eyebrows on first hearing.
Radio is a wonderfully loose limbed approximation of a cocaine addled Fleetwood Mac. A soft percussive shuffle softly propelling the beat, guitars loosely entwined (here very loose) as de Vrity channels Christine McVie on a song that is slippery and supple, the subject possibly a sly dig at the airwave ubiquity of The Mac back in the days. Not content to let de Vrity get away with this bassist Muench then offers up his Where You Come From, another song that harks back to FM radio FM (Fleetwood Mac) dominance. Again, Leonard is propulsive on percussion, the guitars sparkle, the song a perfect fit for playlists. Unlike other acts who have received attention for their rootsy efforts and then turned tiller in order to get more attention here The Stray Birds approach the perch and look down, grab a few seeds and then safely deliver their own version, organic as opposed to mass produced, and somewhat wonderful.
It will be interesting to see how the band manage this transition in a live setting. As we said they play Glasgow Americana on 9th October in the midst of a major UK tour, all dates here.