I have discovered an amazing new (to me), unique (to me) band, and I want to turn you on to them. They’re called Crooked Still, and I can’t get enough of them. Call ’em progressive bluegrass, folk/country, Americana roots, they’re just astonishing. As far as I can tell, they don’t compose; they don’t have any original music in their set. It’s all classic folk songs, or blues, or country, or even the Beatles.
So here’s their lineup: cello, stand-up string bass, violin, banjo and a vocalist. The first thing you probably notice is that they don’t seem to need a guitarist. The second thing you might notice is that they also don’t have drums, or percussion. The percussive element in their music is largely provided by the banjo. And the possibilities they discover in the cello are just remarkable.
So it’s Aoife O’Donovan (vocals), Dr. Gregory Liszt (banjo), Corey DiMario (bass), Tristan Clarridge (cello), and Brittany Haas (violin). O’Donovan and DiMario met at the New England Conservatory of Music in 2001, and then formed up with former cellist Rushad Eggleston and Liszt to form Crooked Still. While they were all finishing grad school, they did some gigs in and around Boston. Eggleston left in 2007, and they added Clarridge and Haas in 2008. They’ve put out five albums, the best of which is Some Strange Country in 2010, though I also love Friends of Fall (2011), and Shaken by a Low Sound (2006).
Let me play you some of their music. Here’s my favorite of their songs, a weird, fascinating, creepy classic American folk song, Wind and Rain. I love the haunting refrain, love how it ends up tying the whole narrative together:
Next song is exactly the kind of song they shouldn’t be able to do without a guitarist; this cover of Robert Johnson’s Come on in my Kitchen. It’s classic Southern blues, and it’s been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to Keb Mo to the Allmen Brothers. Listen to how perfectly the cello handles the coke bottle slide of Johnson’s.
The next song is the one you might have heard of: they used it in True Blood. It’s the great gospel song Ain’t No Grave. Listen to Liszt’s banjo picking in this, probably the most exuberant song about the resurrection of the dead perhaps ever recorded:
Okay, just one more. To give you some idea of their versatility, here’s Crooked Still doing the Beatles.
It does look like the band’s creative energy may have waned. They’ve all been busy on other solo projects since 2012. But they gave us 5 great albums, and may reunite this summer, according to their website. So we’ll see.