Live Reviews - Reviews

The Stray Birds @ Black Box, Belfast


Perhaps it’s the current trend for all banjo, fiddle and beard-wielding Americana bands, or maybe its promotor Moving On Music’s reputation as a purveyor of musical excellence that’s pulled them in, but whatever the reason it’s a full house in the Black Box for Pennsylvanian bluegrass trio The Stray Birds.

Maya de Virtry, Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench played this same room just over a year ago though tonight, judging by the paltry show of hands in response to Craven’s “who was here last time?” survey,  it seems like a new audience is here to catch one of the hottest bluegrass bands on the circuit.

The trio’s eponymous 2012 debut created favourable waves in America and its first major UK and Ireland tour in 2014 provoked an avalanche of superlatives from the folk press in praise of The Stray Birds’ stage craft.

From the opening, foot-stompin’ ‘The Bells’, with its imagery of a cotton plantation, a dog-eared Bible and muddy waters The Stray Birds display their roots with an infectious zeal. Despite the opening salvo of Southern motifs there’s barely a cliché in a set of mostly original tunes. Lyrically agile, the trio’s songs burst with the poetic detail of life on the road and are delivered with swagger and heartfelt emotion.

Throughout the evening multi-instrumentalists Craven and de Virty switch between fiddle and acoustic guitar, while Muench swings on double bass and two and three-part vocal harmonies reign. The vocal harmonies vary little in range, however, lacking a high-end dynamic in particular, and were it not for the quality of the songwriting it might all seem a little generic.

Highlights in the first set include a Hank William’s-esque two-step sung by Muench, the lilting waltz ‘Wild Flower Honey’, which showcases the trio’s sumptuous balladry, the beautiful folk tale ‘Heavy Hands’- with Craven on lead vocals – and a Craven-de Virty duet that conjured the chemistry of the Everley Brothers. ‘Best Medicine’-inspired by a record shop- contains the line: “if the body is a temple, the soul is a bell, that’s why music is the best medicine I sell.”

The second set serves up plenty more good medicine. Old-time stomps and guitar and fiddle-laced tunes that zip like Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappelli rub shoulders with sensitive, lyrically focused tunes. Three-part vocals shine on ‘I Wish it Would Rain’, while Craven cuts loose on mandolin on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Loretta.’

The blues runs like a vein through Jimmy Rogers’ ‘Blue Yodel no. 7’, inspired though by the legendary Doc Watson’s version.  The feel-good tune, ‘Sabrina’, which initially evokes Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ropes in the audience on a little overdue hollering duty.

The anthemic encore calls for a river burial in blue jeans and leather boots, a petition which surely trumps stuffy church protocol and which must work out cheaper to boot.

The Stray Birds’ instrumental virtuosity, its rousing harmonies, good humour and significant songwriting chops all add up to a winning formula. Hopefully Belfast will become a stop on this splendid trio’s annual migratory route. Ian Patterson