Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Stray Birds - The Met Studio at The Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford. Friday 21st August 2015

When The Stray Birds are in town, old time is cool. On the back of widespread acclaim for their performances at Cambridge Folk Festival and assorted dates, the roots trio originally from Lancaster Pennsylvania rolled into Stafford to once again demonstrate a timeless breath taking spin on the beautiful fusion of harmony, virtuoso musicianship and an innate ability to capture the spirit of a bygone age. With precision skill, the band’s performance ascended to impressive heights, maturing with each song that continually portrayed the trio in a different configuration. This ranged from the lead vocal interchange of Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, not forgetting the multiple contributions in this facet from bassist Charles Muench, to the instrumental exchange of mandolin, fiddle and guitars. Whatever the format, the single mic soaked up the sound before projecting its elegance to a near-sold out venue.

The guys from the town’s Fish Records promoted this show which was held in The Met Studio setting of the Gatehouse Theatre and formed part of their ongoing plan to bring quality folk music to the Staffordshire area. Of course booking The Stray Birds meant attracting folks from further afield and anybody who made the journey could have little regret in investing their valuable leisure time for such accomplished music. Following an entertaining set from local blues influenced singer-songwriter Pistol Pete Wearn, who mixed self-penned originals with covers from artists as diverse as Hayes Carll and Jerry Lee Lewis, The Stray Birds used every second of their ninety minute allotted time to woo the appreciative audience with enterprising covers and fetching originals true to the core of tradition.

The trio’s latest album BEST MEDIICINE is approaching its first anniversary in the next few months and several of its tracks were central to the evening’s musical menu. ‘The Bells’ and ‘Never For Nothing’ saw the band immediately hit their stride, while the title track 'Best Medicine’ had all the credentials to be the evening’s peak. Like many of the songs shared, invaluable and informative introductions were the perfect accompaniment as we learned of the New York record shop acting as the song’s inspiration. Also from the latest album, Maya explained how family circumstances in Canada formed the basis for ‘Adelaide’, a song she also graced us with her captivating vocal style. This heavily detected a Gillian Welch influence and to continue the association they included a version of the traditional standard ‘Make Me a Pallet on the Floor’, co-incidentally also recorded by Gillian as well as being an integral track on BEST MEDICINE.

Whilst commenting on their extensive tour schedule, Oliver informed us that he and Maya have now re-located to Nashville and surely the Americana side of the Tennessee music industry will buy into their traditional ideals. This included paying homage to the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and the more up to date duo work of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. The sheer beauty pouring out of Maya and Oliver’s own sumptuous duet ‘Somehow’ added to a crowded gig summit which was also joined by two covers, namely Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Loretta’ and the Doc Watson/Jimmie Rodgers championed favourite ‘Blue Yodel # 7’. ‘Sabrina’ brought the main set to a fine conclusion before the infectious ‘When I Die’ had the sole spot in the encore, with background research revealing this as a new song.

If The Stray Birds had been on the periphery of my musical horizon for the past year, they were definitely on centre-stage this evening and deservedly so. The humour and interaction between Maya, Oliver and Charles was on fine form all night, but merely acts as the dressing to their stunning talent which, while classically trained, has evolved into possessing a magical common touch. Any perceived hype surrounding previous performances in the UK was turned to a golden substance as this show witnessed at The Met studio blossomed into one of the year’s most enjoyable to date. 

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