Jammin’ Java in Vienna, VA is a converted strip mall storefront. It has become one of the coolest music venues in Northern Virginia – intimate, laid back, all about the music. The same can be said for the Stray Birds, who played there August 24th. Maya de Vitry (vocals, guitar, fiddle, banjo), Oliver Craven (vocals, guitar, fiddle, mandolin) and Charles Muench (vocals, bass, banjo) have developed a sound that is so well-crafted; so tightly knit and synergistic, that to imagine them missing a member is to imagine a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece. You get an idea of what the picture is, but it just isn’t complete. This is particularly impressive for a group that has only been playing together since 2010.
With their acoustic fusion of bluegrass, folk, and country (with just a hint of Zydeco?), they have successfully bridged the gap between “old timey” and the more contemporary bluegrass sound of groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and Crooked Still. Sitting there listening felt at once unique and familiar. A winning combination in my book.
Their set list included selections from most of their previous records, along with several from their latest album Magic Fire. While their music ranges from plaintive, to upbeat, to almost frantic, thematically it rarely looks at anything in a black and white way. Life is complicated, emotions are complicated. It is possible to be joyful and melancholy at the same time, and their lyrics reflect that. Songs like “Heavy Hands” and “When I Die” reflect a satisfaction with life’s arc, but also an unrequited desire to be accepted and remembered by others. Several songs, including the haunting “Dream in Blue,” looked at the disappointment that often accompanies commitment to others. A couple of songs veered to the political, including “All the News,” which reflects the absurdity of resignation and discouragement by people who don’t know how lucky they are.
As you might expect from a band whose music is built around a core of traditional American forms, they clearly have a deep respect for the power of music, in all its variety, to enrich our lives. The song “Somehow” sounds like it came straight off a Buddy Holly album, and my personal favorite was their homage to the healing power of music, “Best Medicine.” My favorite lyric: “I walk like I’ve been kneeling on these Rolling Stones / The doctor tells me he can feel the Beatles in my bones / You never known the gold you can find out there / until you put the needle down and do some digging in the air.” Awesome!
The three principles are skilled and versatile musicians. Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven traded off playing guitar and fiddle through the night, with Charles Muench mostly playing stand-up bass. Craven’s voice is the most versatile– reminiscent of Dan Tyminski. de Vitry’s vocal range is limited, but her voice has a very appealing emotional power to it. All three were spot on with their intonation, and the close harmony that characterizes most of their work was nearly flawless.
For their latest album, and the current tour, The Stray Birds recruited drummer Dominic Billett to join them. His contribution deserves special mention. It has often been said about Ringo Starr that his drumming was so unique and so integral to the Beatles you could tell what song was being played just by listening to the drum track. I’m not sure you could say that here, as Billett has only been with the group a short time, but his contribution on this night made it seem as though he had been with them from the beginning. He was absolutely in sync, with his contribution an equal part rather than merely an add on.
Opening for the Stray Birds was the Hello Strangers, fronted by sisters Larissa Chace Smith and Brechyn Chace. An Austin influenced “indie-sister” band out of Pennsylvania, they played a 30 minute set, unfortunately not long enough to really experience all they had to offer. The vocals of the two leads were beautiful, and they had one very lovely song that I have since added to my play list – “The Murder of Lewis Tyree.” I look forward to hearing more from them.
And I look forward to hearing much more from The Stray Birds, who I think have bigger days ahead!