Having landed in London that very morning on a flight from their native US, the Boston-based combo could have been forgiven for showing signs of fatigue. Also, they could have been forgiven for looking a little disheartened when confronted by a somewhat sparsely attended Borderline on the first night of their European tour. In fact from the outset they popped and sparkled, drawing the audience close so that band and crowd could feed off each other’s energy.
These five young women from across the US play a blend of styles – bluegrass, country, folk – that’s rootsy, gutsy and quite irresistible: violin, mandolin, banjo, guitars, double bass and voices create a sound that’s brisk and richly textured. It’s music that accentuates its traditional roots, but the youthfulness of the band, and their frisky musicianship, keeps it sounding fresh; meanwhile Jenni Lyn Gardner’s mandolin solos brought a punkish kind of energy to the party. (It’s illustrative of their approach that that may be the first sentence in the history of music journalism in which the words “mandolin” and “punkish” have appeared together.) The absence of a drummer, meanwhile, is no impediment, as the resonant thrum of Shelby Means’ double bass provides ample swing and swagger.
What struck me most of all, though, was the sense that they are a proper band, a real ensemble. The project was put together by violinist (and two-time national US fiddle champion) Kimber Ludiker, and as well as being a dazzling player, Ludiker clearly has a keen sense of personal and musical chemistry: together they fizzed and grinned – even when she nearly poked one of her bandmates in the eye with her bow.
The show was dominated by songs from their second album, last year’s Grammy-nominated This World Oft Can Be: the breezy, Cajun-flavoured “Pine Tree”, the barn-danceable “Turtle Dove”, the tender, touching love song “Like Bones”. A smattering of cover versions revealed sophisticated palates: the Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl”, stripped down and driven by handclaps; “Wake Up Little Susie”, cruising like an express train; and “Sixteen Tons”, a showcase for the powerful soulful voice of Celia Woodsmith. Only the cheesy “9 to 5” was an uncharacteristic lapse in taste. Oh, and they sang one song in Urdu (learned on an Asian trip sponsored by the US State Department’s American Music Abroad programme), with authentic harmonies and Ludiker’s violin taking the part of a harmonium’s drone. Impressive.
All the while their music crackled with a strange kind of electricity: created entirely from acoustic instruments.