I’ve always said the primary purpose of making music is to evoke an emotional response. Often, that emotion– whether it be love, melancholy, joy or even anger– is a visceral one, coming from the subconscious. Driftwood has no problem in this department. Their high energy, often relentless form of folk-rock they are known for had Jammin’ Java hoppin’. But they have another quality that affected me like few other artists have. They made me think. Specifically, they drove me, as someone who has always had an interest in music as an exemplar of societal change, to think about the origins of their music, and the kernel of traditional American forms around which it is built. Not to say this was an intellectual exercise. In fact, much of the show was raw and heart pounding, showcasing four very talented musicians.
Driftwood is not easily categorized. They incorporate, seemingly at will, several different genres. At heart they are a new folk band, and while comparisons to Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show are not unwarranted, it really pigeon holes them in a way that doesn’t give a true sense of what they offer. They effortlessly add elements of old-timey folk, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, country, Celtic, blues and, hell, even a bit of punk– oftentimes in the same song. This was often compelling, though it sometimes broke the momentum for me, and occasionally made some of the show feel disjointed. Dan Forsyth (guitar) has a very clear, tonally strong voice that he uses to convey subtleties of emotion effectively. Clair Byrne (violin) has the kind of voice that forces you to pay attention and is most effective conveying powerful emotions. It seemed to me when the band was the most insistent and driving, she was the lead on vocals. Joe Kollar (banjo, percussion) and Joey Arcuri (upright bass) also contributed lovely vocals. All four were right on with their intonation and harmonized beautifully.
Instrumentally each is extremely strong, though special mention of Joey Arcuri on upright bass is warranted. In addition to providing the standard bass line you would expect from a folk band, he would often contribute melodically and displayed some seriously flash using bow and pizzicato throughout the show. I haven’t heard an upright bass solo in quite some time, but we were treated to one here. And Byrne, cool as a cucumber, busted a string on her fiddle in the middle of one particularly forceful number. She simply put it down, grabbed a spare, tuned it up and joined right back in, almost like it was planned.
As the night progressed, and as the band tore into some of their numbers with an almost punk-like abandon, images of an old time hoedown, complete with the driving, insistent and often lengthy instrumental interludes between lyrical phrases that characterize it, came to mind. Stimulated by their expert use of some of the traditional elements of Celtic inspired bluegrass, this led into recollections of my interest in the historical origins of folk music in America. I began to think of the importance of bluegrass and folk music to some of the first settlers in America, mostly the Scotch-Irish, who melded their life experience with the structure of the Celtic music they knew, to create a unique American form. Driftwood channeled this beautifully. It is rare I engage in this type of contemplation during a concert. It turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the show for me!
They played numbers from most of their albums, including several from their most recent, City Lights. The range of genres they incorporate was well represented, from the “old timey” inspired “Confidence Is,” to their heartfelt tribute to that most American of beverages, “Lemonade,” that somehow managed to fuse new-age with folk-rock, featuring Joey Arcuri at his flashy best on upright bass. One song, “Before I Rust,” combined a driving bluesy melody powerfully sung by Byrne, with a Beatles vibe complete with a lick seemingly inspired by the orchestral run from “Day in the Life,” and another “The Sun’s Going Down,” combined a catchy pop melodic hook, with an ensemble like vocal reminiscent of the Traveling Wilburys.
My favorites of the night were “Brother,” a song about not letting the chances life provides go by without taking advantage of them, and which featured some beautifully delicate banjo playing from Joe Kollar, and “Buffalo Street,” which started out with a sort of avant-garde bluesy feel featuring some cool pizzicato by Joey Arcuri, that morphed into a kind of driving, zydeco inspired, folk number featuring close harmonies, whistling and hand claps. For me, it exemplified the wide range of music Driftwood has managed to meld so effectively.
The concert was the first I’ve attended at Jammin Java where the audience was not seated. While nobody took advantage, there would have been plenty of room for dancing, and it afforded the band the opportunity to play their encores on the floor surrounded by the audience. A really fun way to end what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening.