NORTH BENNINGTON -- A respected songwriter in her own right, Eilen Jewell returned to the Vermont Arts Exchange's basement on Saturday with her country-gospel project The Sacred Shakers for a night of energetic, old-fashioned spirituals.
Named not for the religious sect, as Jewell explained, but rather after the frontwoman's trusty maraca-like rhythm instruments, the Sacred Shakers rolled into North Bennington seven strong, with the band featuring Jewell on lead vocals and guitar, Greg Glassman (of David Wax Museum) on backing vocals and acoustic guitar, Jerry Miller on electric guitar, Johnny Sciascia on double bass, Eric Royer on banjo, Daniel Kellar on violin and Jason Beek on drums.
Missing from the crowded stage was singer Daniel Fram, a regular member of the group who Jewell said was "off getting his Ph.D. or something."
While Jewell is known as a singer/songwriter, and several of the Shakers also play as her backing band on solo tours, the Sacred Shakers draw on the vast repertoire of traditional, blues-tinged American gospel music, much like many of the earliest rock and roll stars in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Accordingly, on Saturday the band built their set out of songs written by country and gospel legends like Hank Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lucinda Williams, Hazel Dickens, Uncle Dave Macon and others of Christian twang.
Playing some of the songs on their new, yet-to-be-released album, the band fell into an upbeat, snappy rhythm with their short, tight songs, many of which were built on the essential American 8-bar-blues form.
Jewell handled most of the lead vocals herself, but several of the songs featured the singing talents of Beek, Glassman and other members of the band, especially the show's highlight song "I'm Tired," which featured the whole group on acapella harmonies in the extended intro and coda. Jerry Miller's loose, evocative guitar solos stood out in every song that featured him, reminding the crowd that many aspects of today's modern rock music spawn from the early country and blues traditions.
Despite a blanketing, overly-bassy sound mix in the house, the lively VAE audience showed their appreciation and enthusiasm for the Sacred Shakers with spontaneous outbursts of dancing and a partial standing ovation at the end of the two-set show, which lasted over two hours (including an intermission).
The next Basement Music Series concert at the Vermont Arts Exchange will feature zydeco accordian master Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys on Jan. 17.
Jack McManus can be contacted on twitter at @Banner_Arts or via email at email@example.com