It’s not the presence of the cello that makes Crooked Still, the brilliant, youthful bluegrass quintet originally from Boston, so unusual. After all, Nancy Blake first used that instrument to back up her husband Norman’s flatpicking guitar work in the 1970s. What’s so different about this group is that they are perhaps the only acoustic band out there in which the guitar plays only a passing role. The use of the flattop in only a handful of their songs, along with the absence of a mandolin with its relentless staccato backbeat, creates a gap in their rhythm section which allows the group the freedom to vary their musical texture in ways often resembling chamber music. Passages of quiet, sustained chords in the strings, for example, will give way to bursts of full-tilt swing, and, as in operas, ritornellos are sometimes inserted between the verses. Last Friday, their protean instrumental approach and eclectic repertoire, together with lead singer Aoiefe O’Donovan’s lovely if somewhat breathy soprano, brought to a three-quarters full Egg an eloquent, shape-shifting sound that frolicked on the frontiers of acoustic music.
Crooked Still’s current lineup of fiddler Brittany Haas on five-string violin, Greg Liszt on banjo, Corey DiMario on upright bass, Tristan Clarridge on cello, and singer O’Donovan, who occasionally plays fingerstyle guitar and baritone ukulele, kicked off their two-set show with “Lulu Gal,” an old-time tune whose lyrics were a pastiche of “floating” lyrics often heard in other traditional songs. O’Donovan sang without trying to sound like an Appalachian native, and that, along with her spot-on pitch, gave her vocals immense appeal. Cellist and five-time national fiddle champion Tristan Clarridge also contributed a socko solo to the tune.
Next, though, the band followed up with Gillian Welch’s “I Am an Orphan Girl,” which because of its repetitious (and overused) I-V-vi-IV chord progression in the verse, was a letdown that not even O’Donovan’s sweet voice could save.
But that was only a brief lapse. With Ola Belle Reed’s “Undone in Sorrow” the band rebounded. Liszt’s banjo intro, in which his fingers scurried frantically up and down the neck, showed that he has forged an original style on the five-string—no mean feat.
In the second set, O’Donovan showcased her songwriting prowess with “Ramblin’ Red Stick Blues,” a bluesy tune with a Tin Pan Alley flavor written after a late-night drinking bout at a bluegrass festival with fellow performers the Red Stick Ramblers. Also noteworthy was Hass’ sizzling five-string violin solo in “Darlin’ Corey,” which drew enthusiastic applause.
Kudos are due to Crooked Still for showing a way forward in bluegrass.