To be perfectly honest, my first gut reaction to the atmosphere on Tuesday night at The Strumbellas concert was something of an ‘uh oh’ moment. For one thing, I’ve never seen The Biltmore Cabaret so strongly resemble an actual cabaret. The crowd consisted of maybe forty or fifty people, all plaid shirts and cowboy hats and whiskey gingers. Posters vaguely reminiscent of old Western movie ‘Wanted’ posters decorated the walls and nobody seemed very keen to move… definitely not my typical scene. Three or four people, including those I didn’t recognize as band members from The Strumbellas, were scattered across the dance floor as the first opener plucked out the final notes of his set.
A faint murmur of chatter flitted through the sparse crowd and I found myself a nice booth seat, fully expecting this to be a sit-down, toe-tap kind of show. Jon Sponarski kicked it up a wee bit as the second opener, doing his acoustic bluegrass thing with style. He was grinning along the entire time and his smile, when you could catch a glimpse of it beneath the mounds of shaggy beard and head hair, was infectious. I got up a few times to shake off the dust and sway next to my friends and by the end of his set at least half the audience (by which I mean about twenty people) were on the dance floor, timidly tapping their feet and bobbing their heads.
Cue The Strumbellas.
As soon as they came on stage the mood of the audience switched from cautious country music fans to full-blown indie-something dance machines. Every flannel-clad body in sight suddenly couldn’t keep itself still and for the duration of The Strumbellas’ show, the whole crowd was rocking along with them. I’ll admit now that I was not familiar with their music before that night, but their sound blew my mind. They perform a beautiful combination of bluegrass lyrics, indie-rock beats, and just enough country hee-haw to keep things twangy and interesting.
Every single band member played their part with a passion you could taste, brows furrowed furiously, sweat beading and dropping with every foot stomp, making you wonder whether they really love performing this much or whether maybe they’re all just in love with each other. This intensity was the most striking part of their act – perhaps just because I didn’t expect it from them.
The key to my heart when it comes to any kind of performance, be it a concert or a play or a one-woman show, is surprise. If you can keep me guessing and not just do exactly what the audience is expecting you to do, at least I can say I had an interesting time, if nothing else. The Strumbellas walked out on stage shooting nervous glances at each other and shy smiles at the crowd, carrying violins and slide guitars and other generally nasally instruments. Then they banged out a rhythm so addictive my friends and I were actually singing along – the fact that we didn’t know a single word was pretty irrelevant.
They even did a cover of “Float On” by Modest Mouse. More importantly, they did a really good cover of “Float On” by Modest Mouse. Who knew you could take such a staple indie-rock song, bang it out with a little bluegrass resonance, and make it into a totally new but familiar beat. Their energy was just so completely obsessive, I’m sure they could rock a huge outdoor venue or stadium just as easily and innocently as they enslaved us at The Biltmore. It didn’t hurt that the violinist is a heart-wrenchingly gorgeous woman with the voice of an angel.
So thank you, Strumbellas, for keeping my night beyond interesting and injecting a little bluegrass into my indie-rock-pop fueled veins. Thank you for making that shy little crowd at The Biltmore swing and dance and drop their inhibitions. And thank you for being so real, for playing with such passion, for not needing a single synthesizer or sampler to rock such a unique, intricate sound. I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing a lot more about you guys over the next year and I can’t wait.