Beautiful Dreamers: The Stray Birds give a high-flying concert at the ArtsCenter

A young band came to the Carrboro ArtsCenter on May 4, and the 80 or so avid listeners in the audience got a big delicious taste of the famousness sure to come. The Stray Birds are a remarkable trio playing Americana music on guitars, fiddles, banjos, stand-up bass and mandolin. They write much of their own material, but also arrange classic songs by others–from really old tunes like “The Waggoner’s Lad,” to Susanna Clark’s “San Antone Rose.” That last should give you an idea of their boldness. Not that many singers want to take on a song Emmy Lou has put her indelible imprint on. Even fewer would be worthy.

The Stray Birds. L-R: Charles Muench, Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven.

The Stray Birds. L-R: Charles Muench, Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven. Photo: Scott Bookman.

The Stray Birds have quite a bit of classical music training among them, but their real influences are Appalachian mountain music, bluegrass, country, gospel and Texas swing. Maya de Vitry, who writes many of the group’s songs, cites Townes van Zandt, Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Lyle Lovett, and J.S. Bach (the unaccompanied cello suites), along with poets Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds, at the top of her list. Hearing The Stray Birds two days after hearing Iris DeMent in the same venue was pretty great: The younger band’s cheerful energy, even on the sadder songs, threw a bright light on DeMent’s chronic melancholy. Iris gave a strong concert (accompanied by excellent bass man Kyle Kegerreis and hot guitar/mandolin player Jon Graboff), but The Stray Birds were far more enjoyable.

“Performing,” de Vitry told me, “is usually the happiest, most joyful part of the day.” That sentiment communicates itself. It is also easy to understand–these three have put nearly 50,000 miles on a Subaru Outback since April a year ago, when they began touring. Imagine it: three grown people, slim but tall; the bass, fatter than any of them; assorted other instruments, notebooks, laptops, and a change or two of clothes, all crammed in together, riding up and down the highways and backroads. Rarely spending two nights in the same place. Playing bars and clubs and small venues like the ArtsCenter. Writing and arranging between shows. Just getting out of the car must be a mood elevator.

The group also produces its own recordings. “There used to be a hierarchy of power,” de Vitry told me, regarding the music business, and of course, a division of labor. But The Stray Birds, following the current DIY model, do it all, with the help of Durham-based Americana Agency. Even if the music were not wonderful, their story would be inspiring. Both their EP, Borderlands, and their full-length CD, The Stray Birds, are very good, and the band played many songs from both in their show, as well as some old songs and some new material they will record later this month.

They opened their ArtsCenter show with a graceful song reminiscent of the late great George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” For The Stray Birds, love stops not at death, but when dreaming stops. They followed this up with a nice backhand: “White Words/Black Hills,” about “the calculated insult” of Mount Rushmore, then changed up to “Lay Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor,” Texas swing style, with a great guitar break by Oliver Craven and some fabulous bass slapping by Charles Muench.

The two men were in a band called River Wheel before they formed The Stray Birds with de Vitry, and it came out that they’d played at The Cave. Apparently not a happy experience. Craven noted that nobody was listening at The Cave, and couldn’t seem to get over the focused attention they were receiving at the ArtsCenter. The band made it easy to listen. They mike their instruments well, and sing together at a single microphone, stepping up and back as needed for their skin-tingling close harmonies.

The second set, like the first, was a mix of fine original songs and classics like “I Was a Stranger” (Muench noted he’d learned it from a Doc Watson record). They finished up with a really nice arrangement of the traditional “Waggoner’s Lad,” calling it “My Horses Ain’t Hungry.” It’s on the EP. Coming back, a little surprised, for an encore, they did a roof-raising version of Craven’s song, “My Brother’s Hill.” One of Craven’s big influences is Ralph Stanley, and he wrote the song thinking about what Stanley had told him about his tie to his land, and the place where his brother is buried. It is a beautiful song, with the refrain, “my body ruined, my soul will rise.” We do not have to wait for the inevitable ruin to have our spirits rise. Just put on the CD. And next time these folks come around, get your tickets early.

Sing, Play, Dance: A Few Previews as Merry May Skips In

She'll grab you by the heartstrings. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

She’ll grab you by the heartstrings and sing you back home. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

One of my all-time favorite songbirds will be singing tonight from the small stage at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: the wonderful Iris DeMent.  What a songwriter! What a storyteller! What a compelling voice! When DeMent’s first album, Infamous Angel, appeared in 1992, I could hardly play anything else for months. She makes me feel home. Not necessarily comfortable or happy (“Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Ev’ry Day”), but home. Other great records of wise poetry and fine playing joined it–but until last fall, it had been sixteen years since a new Iris album came out. It’s called Sing the Delta. Hallelujah, y’all. When she came to the Cat’s Cradle years ago, I saw practically everyone I knew there, pressing close to the stage. It will be nearly as intimate in the ArtsCenter, with the advantage of actual seats. Show’s at 8. See you there.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Thursday is just the beginning. The ArtsCenter, now led by the highly music-knowledgeable Art Menius, has announced a really incredible roster of concerts–many kinds of American music–for the forthcoming year. Friday, May 3 brings another legend–Roger McGuinn. This is the man whose sparkling 12-string and musical verve lit up the 1960s and beyond. He was one of the founders of the Byrds.  Need I say more? Maybe just three words: “Mr. Tambourine Man.” McGuinn has not slowed down, but he has turned back towards his folk roots. If you were, perhaps, born too late to know him from the first wave, check out his recordings of numerous songs here  (listen for free). Should be a great concert.

But wait, there’s more–it’s a one-two-three punch. Not the Byrds, but The Stray Birds, a charming singer-songwriter trio from southern Pennsylvania, will play the ArtsCenter on Saturday, May 4. The musicians of this young band were steeped in music from infancy–Appalachian mountain music, classical, and (for them) classic Americana. Lead singer (guitar, fiddle, banjo) Maya De Vitry grew up singing along with Iris DeMent in the family car, and you can hear it in her words, and the spaciousness she gives them. De Vitry’s voice is smoother, more golden, than DeMent’s, but no less honest. Band mate Oliver Craven (guitar, fiddle) wrote half the songs on their fine, self-produced CD, and he and Charles Muench (bass, banjo) create beautiful harmonies with De Vitry. NPR named their album one of the best of 2012, and I totally agree. Smart songs, lovely sounds, great energy. Really great energy: “I like surprising people with music,” De Vitry told me in a phone interview. Explains why the now 22-year-old was successful busking her way around North America and Europe. Prepare to be happily surprised on Saturday night.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

However, if you just can’t take your nouvelle old-time music sitting down, choose option B.

The Five Points Rounders.

The Five Points Rounders.

Local favorites, The Five Points Rounders will be playing one of their Rowdy Square Dances, this time at  Nightlight Bar & Club near the Chapel Hill/Carrboro line. Warning: this is not your mama’s square dancing. Too much fun, and you can buy beer.

I’ll be missing Roger McGuinn on Friday, because I will not miss the opening of the final show in Manbites Dog Theater‘s great 25th season. Ed Hunt and Jeff Storer changed the theatrical landscape in Durham and the Triangle when they created their theater, and here’s a play to demonstrate how far we’ve all come. At the beginning, MDT did a lot of “issue” plays about gay identity, AIDS, discrimination and so on–all good–but now they can make plays about people, not symbols.

The super-cast of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

The super-cast (including Gregor McElvogue cuddling with the ever-impressive Derrick Ivey) of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

As Jeff Storer says: “In the early days we did queer theater because our friends were dying and it was a way to tell the stories and raise awareness about our responsibilities as a society. A play like THE HOMOSEXUALS is political by virtue of its title. But it is not an issue play. It’s about FAMILY. About finding a family and a home when the one you were born into disapproves. The play is sexy and playful and It’s about change and loving friends. It’s about the “here and now.””

Storer, a master at coaxing maximun humanity from actor ensembles, directs this recent play by Philip Dawkins. He’s got a dream cast of several of this area’s finest actors. The show will run through May 18. Tickets on the website. Don’t let this one slip by.

Also in Durham, and just a block away, something entirely different. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents The Wooster Group’s Diary of Anne Frank at The Shadowbox. This experimental production of an experimental work that never happened, in a new experimental performance space, is directed by Jay O’Berski. It could be a steaming mess; it could be brilliant. Probably both. Guaranteed that LGP will take you for a wild ride. Opened May 1, runs through May 18. Tickets:  or 919.452.9204.

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