The Stray Birds were, for a lot of observers, the highlight of this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. A slice of multi-instrumental, classically trained Pennsylvanian sunshine, Maya de Vitry, Charlie Muench and Oliver Craven gather round a single microphone on stage and make a gloriously hybrid noise informed as much by bluegrass and old-time Country as it is The Band and Jimi Hendrix. The applause for their lunchtime Saturday set has just died into the white noise of the festival background when we meet up backstage to find out what they thought of the Cambridge experience. They’re relaxed and playful, talking over and finishing each other’s sentences.
Maya de Vitry – ‘I’ve just had a massage, so I’m feeling great.’ Isn’t that what you need before you go on? MdV – ‘I’d like to have one three times a day…’ Oliver arrives from other PR duties and Maya asks me what I thought of the show, forcing me to admit I arrived in time to hear their Townes Van Zandt cover, missing the early numbers. How did you think it went? MdV – ‘The sound was good. Everyone here is nice and easy to work with and the crowd just started coming in…’
It was a good crowd too.
Charlie Muench – ‘Yeah, every time I looked out there were more.’ The same will happen on Sunday, when they have Stage Two bouncing in delight at their infectious melodies and barely suppressed energy. You’re used to playing festivals though?
MdV ‘Yeah, but this is different; people are standing right up front. Back home they all have chairs.’ Like they have further back?
MdV – ‘Yeah, but this is nice; I love this. It’s ‘Come here and be with the band’ or ‘Go there and eat a sandwich’. And that’s fine, you’ll still hear it, but if you wanna come be a part of our energy, you’ve got to come to the front.’ There was a lot of energy, on both sides. CM – ‘The feedback loop was great.’
Is it your first time over here?
MdV – ‘Celtic Connections was the first time, Glasgow. It was a great line-up too. Jordie Lane played, who ended up touring with us in the States. He supported Mary Chapin Carpenter in this big grand hall in Glasgow..’
CM – ‘with a full orchestra..’
MdV – ‘..but just wandered on and told a story about coat checking his banana..’ – cue all three attempting Australian accents – ‘..the Foghorn String Band was there, who we love..’
Oliver Craven – ‘Darrell Scott was there.’
It’s easy to see where the irrepressible nature of this trio on stage comes from, as they reminisce between each other and share stories of their US tour with Lane. Despite being tired, relaxed or both, Maya, Charlie and Oliver clearly don’t feel there’s enough time in the day to fit every sentence in, but they have a damn good go at trying.
How long has Best Medicine been out now? OC – ‘Nearly a year now. It’s the first time we’ve been to the UK with it – it’s still fun to play.’ MdV – ‘It’s new to a lot of festivals this summer.’ Despite having played it for so long? OC – ‘Yeah, we’ve been playing the songs longer than most people realise, but that’s cool.’ CM- ‘The response has been great.’ I love how you finished the set with the album opener. OC – ‘That song winds up at the end of a lot of sets.’ Leaving them wanting more? MdV – ‘Always!’
You’re playing tomorrow?
OC – ‘Yep, then fly home Monday to two weeks holiday. We’re coming back for a fortnight’s tour including the Fringe Festival – this is Best Medicine UK! It’s a hectic schedule, but not as hectic as you might imagine.’
MdV – ‘We’re going to Spain in-between, so the travelling’s not as bad.’ There’s a chorus of strange Spanish accents asking directions to the beach and, naturally, for more beer. We talk about the difference between a standard festival and The Fringe, CM – ‘We’re playing the Spiegeltent in Edinburgh, then the Tonder festival in Denmark. When you get there, they give you a bike.’ To ride around the festival? MdV –‘You can go anywhere. Last time I used it to go back to the hotel. I went to Germany [laughs]; seriously, it’s really close! So artists sleep in Germany then ride to the festival.’ The ability to ride between countries is clearly something that delights them.
That’ll take you nicely through towards the end of the year… and new recording; any ideas for a new album? MdV – ‘Yeah, we’re working on it. We haven’t gone into the studio yet but we’re working – we’re getting the songs together.’ I wonder if they ever try the songs live? MdV – ‘Yep. The first one in today’s set was new, it’ll probably get recorded soon. It’s really fun to play the new ones.’ Any new directions? MdV – ‘It’s a similar direction to Best Medicine, but we might..’
OC – ‘It’s still all about the songs.’
I’m nearly done with my questions, but The Stray Birds aren’t done with me. CM – ‘We’re going to interview you now. How did you meet Loudon [the band’s UK PR – the band name-checked him in their set and thanked him for helping them get over here]?’ They clearly have a fond spot a mile wide for him – OC – ‘Loudon believes in the story.’
MdV – ‘He believes in us. He doesn’t believe in having time to eat lunch though!’ They want to know what else I listen to and who else I intend to see. We spend some time talking about other artists, including Fish and Bird, MdV – ‘Check out our video for Never For Nothing; Taylor Ashton is the main guy.’
They name check The Skatalites [playing as we interview] and agree that the variety of styles on offer seems wider than at US festivals. Maya slips into television newscaster mode, furrowing her brow, lowering her voice to a dramatic baritone, ‘What is folk music?’ CM- ‘It’s fiddle and banjo Maya!’ [laughs all round] A lot of people over here say it’s the ‘music of, by and for the people’, not unlike the US traditions. OC – ‘Kind of like singing the Constitution of the USA [starts singing the beginning of the constitution – more laughter] Folk singing is gun rights! Folk music is the right to bear arms!’
He assures me he’s just kidding, but you knew that. Right?
On Stage Two, Sunday, I’m witness in full to just how The Stray Birds win over crowds. Standing next to Radio 2’s Mark Radcliffe, who doesn’t stop smiling from start to finish, I’m privileged to be caught up in a groundswell of good vibes that rightly sends the majority of the packed tent home wishing their next festival visit was 24 hours away rather than 12 months. I count no less than three extended ovations during the set, causing Maya to ask them to stop at one point for fear of her crying.
They start with the Louvin Brothers track, When I Stop Dreaming. Instantly into their groove, unsurprising given that they’ve played the day before, they follow it up with their version of Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor. Faster than the one I’m used to (Gillian Welch’s interpretation from Soul Journey), it has a wonderfully suspended vocal in the chorus and gets the crowd going. Completing a trio of covers, Nanci Griffith’s I Wish It Would Rain is a perfect foil for Maya’s soulful voice, the ‘When the diamonds fall / They burn like tears’ line sent beautifully out into the Cambridge air. If nothing else, it’s a brave opening to a crowd who may not be educated in your own material, but it’s also a way of marking their card, as good a way of introducing their heritage as any.
The first standout is the aforementioned Never For Nothing, a slower ballad where Maya’s voice leads Charlie and Oliver’s harmonies over the pain of previous losses and on into a barely glimpsed light of hope. The Bells is a return to the mid-tempo stomp with its ‘Muddy waters..’ refrain raising a smile. Van Zandt’s Loretta is the best bar sing-along you’ve heard this side of a full moon and Oliver’s Heavy Hands, from their debut album, is dedicated to those who ‘..make something out of nothing’. Long before this point they could have started singing nursery rhymes and the crowd would have whooped and hollered, but this song, more than any, sums them up. You can smell the work sweat, the willow and pine, the dreams wafting into the air with the rising three-part harmony. ‘Will you reach me / Can you try?’ they sing, but we’re already there.
Best Medicine’s title track is joyous, slightly faster than the studio version and delighting in the rising chorus with its declamatory ‘Well, well, well’. They finish with Sabrina, the crowd clapping and singing along as if they’ve known their music for years. Earlier in the set, The Stray Birds sang a new track, When I Die, including the lyric ‘When I die / bury me at the tree with the deepest roots’. It’s possible the Stray Birds would be returning to where they came from, so strong is their anchor to the roots music of their country.
Interview and Review by: Paul Woodgate
Performing a Backstage Session at Cambridge Folk Festival
The Stray Birds Live Dates
Wed 19: Cecil Sharp House, London
Thu 20: Norwich Arts Centre
Fri 21: The Met Studio, Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford
Sat 22: The Black Box, Belfast
Sun 23: The Famous Spiegeltent, Edinburgh Fringe
Tue 25: St Andrews in The Square, Glasgow
Thu 27-30: Tønder Festival, Denmark
Photo Credit: Doug Seymour