While up north certainly has some strong bluegrass players, I found myself at a truly special evening at Club Passim in Cambridge. Before the show, I’d heard both the Three Tall Pines and the Stray Birds and was struck by both. I thought I could easily be somewhere else.
The Three Tall Pines are a highly talented bluegrass band on tape. Live they are more of an authentic southern railroad quartet. They dress like the Soggy Bottom Boys but they can drop a high harmony like it’s their job (it is). The tunes, mostly written by Taunton, MA’s own Dan Boudreau seem like they were torn from an era that has long since past.
“Stonewalls” recounts the tale of Boudreau’s grandfather seeing a dirt road paved. He swings through the images of a cornfield and livestock. It sounds as southern and authentic with Boudreau’s accent and Conor Smith’s beautiful fiddle lines as any bluegrass tune I’ve heard.
The band blended vocals and brilliant instrumental work. Each note seemed accurate but emotional at the same time. The boys dripped with an authenticity you wouldn’t expect from northerners. But I felt like I could have walked into a bar in Kentucky and seen the same band.
The first act, the Stray Birds, did not disappoint either. I had recently gotten their two records after hearing “Dream in Blue” and I was stunned. Maya de Vitry’s voice was equal parts folk and soul. It falls somewhere between Gillian Welch and Alison Kraus and makes something new.
Throw in equally strong fiddle work from de Vitry and Oliver Craven (singer/songwriter), and you’ve get a hell of a trio. The basslines of Charles Mench drive the tunes forward and round out the harmonies.
At the show, the three part harmonies of de Vitry, Craven and Mench drove the point home. They seemed to raise each of the songs from songcraft to truly emotional performance. Craven’s tunes “25 to Life” and “Heavy Hands” blended seamlessly into the heartbroken tunes of de Vitry with “Railroad Man” and “Harlem.” Craven’s tunes sound like they came from the farm country.
The true standout of the show was “Borderland.” De Vitry explained that it was about her grandfather who’d died in a plane crash and how he was with the birds. The phrasing and his letter home “Look for me with the birds of the borderland / I know what it means to feel free.” If you’re not sure of the song, just wait for the harmonies. Gives me goosebumps.
The Stray Birds are the real deal. I haven’t been as excited about a band in a few years. Their tunes are crafted from a place that strikes of real and tangible emotion. It’s hard to hear them and deny it. Keep an eye on them. If there is any justice in the Americana world the secret will be out soon.
Photos by Suzanne Davis
About the author: Jeff is a teacher in the Boston area. When not buried correcting papers, Jeff can be found plucking various stringed instruments and listening to all types of americana music.