BENNINGTON -- Barely a day after The Lost rocked the Oldcastle Theatre on Friday night, Jan. 10, the venue re-opened for another night of music, switching to acoustic mode for a concert with Something with Strings, a contemporary bluegrass-inspired country/folk quintet from the Burlington area.
Since Something with Strings formed over six years ago they've been through a series of lineup changes, including some that have vastly altered their sound like eliminating drums from the band and adding harmonica player Collin Cope last summer, who adds some blues elements to their sound with his bold, raspy vocals.
Alongside Cope's harmonica, the band includes the classic lineup of bluegrass string instruments with Adam Howard on guitar, Luke Fox on upright bass, Pete Kraus on 5-string, open-back banjo and Matt Francis on mandolin.
Currently based in Burlington and Winooski, many of the band's members came together as students at University of Vermont or Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, just outside of Burlington. Having toured all over Vermont and played shows in Boston, New York City and Colorado, they've become a part of Burlington's active downtown music scene, playing well-known venues like Nectar's.
Starting just after 7:30 p.m., this show immediately felt different from The Lost's the night before. Set up shoulder-to-shoulder in a straight line at the front of the stage, Something with Strings spread themselves out to take advantage of Oldcastle's ample performance space. They also played through the theatre's house PA system, unlike The Lost who brought their own speaker setup. Because Oldcastle's system is designed more for theater than music, it created a somewhat unsettling "voice of god" effect, in which the vocals seemed to come down from the ceiling instead of where the vocalist stood onstage.
Disembodied voices aside, Something with Strings showed their unique style with a strong set of original songs, with a few traditional and country covers mixed in. While the band's instrumentation gave each song a twangy, old-time feel, their songwriting style actually followed more of a folky, singer-songwriter pattern than the standard bluegrass formula, focusing more on lyrics and cohesively crafted songs than instrumental gymnastics.
"Some of us don't even really listen to a whole lot of bluegrass, and others are super into it" said mandolin player Matt Francis in an interview after the concert. "Each person has their own diverse musical tastes.
Demonstrating those diverse musical preferences, the band's bassist Luke Fox also plays electric bass in a funk/rock group called Rumblecat, and Francis described guitarist Adam Howard as "a huge metal-head."
While most of their cover songs at the Oldcastle show came from the songbook of American roots music, including traditional tunes like "See See Rider" and contemporary songs by Hank Williams III (the legendary country singer's grandson) and Old Crow Medicine Show, they did take a detour into the classic blues number "The Thrill Is Gone" lead by the gruff lead vocals of harmonica player Collin Cope. While guitarist Adam Howard sang most often, every member of the band sang lead on at least one song throughout the night.
Besides the covers, many of the songs on Saturday's setlist are set to be released on the band's next album, which is in the process of being recorded. The band hopes it will be ready for release in February or March.
"Our last album included three other members that weren't in the band -- we had a drummer -- so there's definitely a way different sound" said Francis. "We have new vocalists, and new people writing songs. And we've gotten way better as musicians, both technically and with our songwriting."
After growing accustomed to bars and nightclubs full of "drunken fools," the band seemed to enjoy the Oldcastle show as a nice change of pace, saying the quiet, attentive audience gave them the chance to "make each note count."
"We're used to playing weddings and dive-bar gigs, where people are just looking to dance and drink and have a good time" Francis said, "so we can throw down if we need to, or we can focus on our down-home country, slower numbers."
At Oldcastle, focus definitely shifted to the latter, much to the crowd's delight.
Something with Strings will return to the area on Feb. 21 for a concert at The Perfect Wife Restaurant and Tavern in Manchester.
Jack McManus can be reached on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or by e-mail at email@example.com