It has been just over two years since The Stray Birds first caught my ear, and the subsequent evolution of their sound is now gathering pace. Essentially, a strong core of the band’s ethos will always be rooted in the old time roots camp. However, the transition to blend in a finely tuned country rock sound is taking hold to the extent of now being on the cusp of dominating their live show. Whatever style they adopt, a stark talent shines through, and a continual approach to have the UK on their touring horizon is reaping rewards in growing a fan base. This latest excursion from their US homeland has included a first Birmingham date, and a Hare and Hounds audience revelled in a performance still rising to a peak when time was called on a fabulous gig.
For those who have had the privilege of attending a previous Stray Birds show, the wandering thought from the early stages of the set was when the vintage single mic would be utilised. This format had become a trademark feature of Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charlie Muench sharing their delightful musical talents with a live audience. Eventually it did take centre stage, albeit only for a pair of songs including a version of Jimmy Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel #7’, a familiar inclusion into their live shows.
However, by this stage the mould had been cast in Oliver’s guitar playing, particular the electric model, stealing the show. This aspect of the performance had stiff competition from the exquisite fiddle playing from both Oliver and Maya, often part of the continual instrument switch between the pair that has been another popular trait to illuminate a Stray Birds show. During this array of superlative musicianship, Charlie continues to hold the bassline with the stand-up version and the ever-increasing presence of a drummer in the line-up keeps up the rock beat, with for this tour Sean Trischka parading the sticks and brushes.
Another key factor guiding the band towards acclaimed status is the strength of their original songs. The soul-pumping ‘Best Medicine’ and infectious ‘Sabrina’ keenly retain prime position in any Stray Birds repertoire and the versions heard first in Birmingham this evening further cemented this view. Two other songs to leap up the appreciation ladder from this show were Maya’s beautifully delivered personal piece ‘Birds of the Borderland’ and ‘Third Day in a Row’. The former stretches all the way back half a dozen years ago to when the trio set out on the recording road, while the latter proved an exceptional piece of divine riff-laden cultured rock to close the overall show on a significant high.
Casting the mind back to previous Stray Birds shows, the overriding resemblance of Maya’s vocal style to that of Gillian Welch never wanes from the mind when listening to the emotive way she portrays the depth of the songs. This always comes to a pinnacle when the band cover the roots standard ‘Make Me Down a Pallet on the Floor’; an old song probably best defined by Gillian’s version in recent times.
While the overall feel of this show lent heavily in a new direction, it was first hearing the MAGIC FIRE album last year, which raised the ear lobes to a jolt away from the sole domain of being an old time string band. Cracking tunes from that release, including ‘Shining in the Distance’, ‘Radio’ and ‘When I Die’, still play a huge part in promoting the record and were welcome additions to the evening’s set list.
This was an evening that began in fine style with a splendid opening performance from UK roots band SJ & the Flying Pigs. This Cambridge-based quartet proved the ideal opening foil for The Stray Birds with an array of catchy tunes predominately fuelled by the fiddle playing of Nicky Terry and voraciously led by bandleader SJ Mortimer. Their enthusiasm for the music of The Stray Birds also signalled a sound port of influence to call upon.