Lake Street Dive, Infamous Stringdusters bring hearty Americana to NYC

Image Credit: Tom Daly

On Thursday night at the Bowery Ballroom, Lake Street Dive took the stage under a haze of smoke that made the place feel like an old-time jazz lounge.

It was an atmosphere befitting the group’s retro sensibility. Built around a guitar, drums, upright bass, and a powerhouse lead vocalist (with a dash of trumpet for flavor), the Boston quartet performed a mélange of folk, jazz, and rockabilly that wouldn’t be out of a place in a Buddy Holly biopic.

Yet for all of their rootsy underpinnings, the group write songs with an indie pop flair that is very much of the moment.

Songs like “Henriette” and “Wear a Wedding Band” showcase a kind of ‘60s girl-group earnestness, cooing backup harmonies and all, but they’re delivered with rock-club verve. Slower tunes like “Don’t Make Me Hold Your Hand” display a mastery of the downtempo groove, anchored by Bridget Kearney’s funky, syncopated acoustic bass lines. At the head of it all is lead singer Rachael Price, a classically trained jazz vocalist who boasts an astonishingly full-bodied contralto and a knack for coquettish posturing – her voice and her stage presence are the stuff of a film-noir temptress.

And what’s most evident live, which you don’t necessarily hear on record, is that this is a top-notch rock band. They don’t shy away from frenetic drum fills and free-jazz bass solos, and upbeat tracks like “Elijah” get a blissfully vigorous treatment that’s damn near explosive.

The night’s headliners, The Infamous Stringdusters, thrive even more in the live setting. They’ve released four excellent studio records so far – winning numerous awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association and, in 2011, grabbed a Grammy nomination – but they’re one of those bands for whom albums are merely a loose foundation. To truly appreciate the band, you have to see them in concert.

The members of the bluegrass quintet have become so fluent in their respective instruments that the normal stage protocol no longer applies: they move about, swap places, huddle around soloists – it’s all fluid and flawless. In fact they’re so technically proficient that you’d almost think their performance was mechanical if it weren’t for the frequent jam breaks.

More often than not, one song opened up to allow for extended solos from several of the players and then bled effortlessly into the next. They also covered songs liberally, from traditional Americana rock fare like The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” and Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Bottom Breakdown” to more inventive material: The Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” U2’s “In God’s Country,” The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”

They played for nearly three hours, duly rewarding their fans with tracks from their 2007 debut Fork in the Road all the way through this year’s Silver Sky. This exhaustive commitment to the live experience has allowed the Stringdusters to maintain a strong following despite minimal coverage from the music press; they even funded Silver Sky entirely through fan donations. In the end everyone left the concert last night feeling a bit closer to home, wherever that may be.

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