The Stray Birds’ talent as multi-instrumentalists, and their tight 3-part harmonies, have made it possible for them to cultivate their own particular sound from various American folk music traditions.
Tonight in The Black Box they started with “Bells” from Best Medicine, Oliver Craven was holding his guitar up to the microphone while Maya de Vitry concentrated on her singing with screwed up eyes and hunched shoulders. Charlie Muench on upright bass was up there singing with them, sharing that microphone, forming that classic Stray Birds photo-op.
They followed this with “Harlem,” a song that conjures up images of many a home city. I know it describes Belfast to me. De Vitry’s voice was deep as once again they were all wrapped around the sole, strategically placed microphone for those harmonies. With a faint quiver of her shoulders she stopped playing her guitar as the song ended.
It was Craven who sang “Heavy Hands.” It’s a beautiful song, a heartfelt song. The room was quiet and content, soaking it in. De Vitry’s eyes were closed, and as she accompanied Craven on the fiddle her head moved with the music.
She told a tale of talking with an old sheep farmer she had met, of how he stands out to her because she loved the way he listened to the music. As she introduced “Wildflower Honey” she dedicated it to “the people who touch your life that you’ll never see again”
Quiet man Charlie Muench had his time at the mic at last – well, to a degree. If I’ve got it right he said that he and Craven wrote the next song, “Somehow,” together. Then after listening to the Everly and the Louvin Brothers they decided that it should be a duet. He looked out at the room, and as we fell into expecting him to start singing the song with Craven, he picked up his upright bass and forlornly stepped away to allow Craven and de Vitry to step forward. He wasn’t in the duet. We applauded. It was masterful. We loved him. The Everly and Louvin tinged duet was gentle and sad and easy.
The set ended on “Best Medicine”, title track from the latest album. Inspired by the owner of a small record shop fighting against the odds on a boarded up street, the song started with mournful simple guitar. The words were spell binding.
If the body is a temple
The soul is a bell
And that’s why music is
The best medicine I sell
The second half had Craven talking to us. He was telling us how lucky they all feel to be in a position to do what they do. There are people who would love to be under this roof he told us “but they can’t because they’re beat up, or mistreated, or unhealthy, and we’re just lucky.” The warm and sincere sentiment was followed by “All The News.” “Hey all the news is bad” they sang at us as their Lancaster, Pennsylvania accents rose to the top. Muench’s bass bounced from behind the others, to play with the words, to lighten them.
Although the night was based on The Stray Birds’ own work, there were some covers from their beautifully crafted 2013 covers EP Echoes. The first song they apparently ever played in the UK was Nanci Griffith’s “I Wish It Would Rain.” When they played it for us here in The Black Box, Craven was applauded for some impressive guitar, and as he raised himself on his toes and the song ended the applause grew louder. They also gifted us with a happy, harmonied version of “Loretta” from the same EP.
“Sabrina” had us shouting “oh” and we managed it well, talented Saturday night crowd that we were. The fact that the people on stage just carried on, regardless of whether we shouted or not freed us up. We were good at the “ohs.”
I saw The Stray Birds last year in the same venue. For that review I wrote “Musicianship and sweet harmonies prevailed in this gig. Superb musicians, masterful songwriters, easy wordsmiths – I would keep an eye out for the next time they’re in this neck of the woods. This was a class act.” I can’t beat that sentiment second time around.