Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Infamous Stringdusters had a pretty good year last year.
Indeed, it seems almost clichéd to lead with such a statement, despite its truth. After all, the Stringdusters have been on a steady rise for nearly seven years, and the band didn’t hit the lofty critical heights of years past. There was no Grammy nod, as in 2011, or multiple International Bluegrass Music Association wins, like in 2007. But 2013 was perhaps the most critical year for the five-piece string band, in terms of the longview.
Beyond writing and recording Let It Go, the band’s fifth full-length album (and third for its boutique label High Country Recordings), 2013 was the Stringdusters’ first full year of touring as a five-piece. (They used to be a sextet: mandolinist Jesse Cobb left in late 2011.) And it was their first year of doing it with a full production team and full crew on an honest-to-god tour bus.
“It took us a long time to settle into what we are,” said Travis Book (upright bass player). “I don’t even know how to define what we are.”
With Let It Go, the Stringdusters have moved further away from what they aren’t—a traditional bluegrass band.
Since emerging from Nashville in 2007, even after moving to Charlottesville in 2011, the Stringdusters have always resembled a traditional bluegrass band, at least in passing. The lineup boasts fast-picking, Berklee-trained wunderkinds playing fiddle, dobro, banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, and it peppers its mountain music with the breakneck solos, craggy rhythms, and pleasant close harmonies redolent of Appalachia.
But the Stringdusters have always had bigger ideas about where they wanted to take their music. And they had no interest in purism, which they found limiting.
“If you’re in a bluegrass band, you do the bluegrass thing,” Book said.
And like contemporaries Railroad Earth, the Stringdusters have continually, if gently, pushed the limits of bluegrass, balancing a fluency in old-timey music with indie jamgrass sensibilities. Let It Go is the band’s most stylish and nuanced synthesis to date, working in widescreen country jams (“Colorado”), freewheeling acoustic rock (“Peace of Mind”), and romantic balladry (“Summercamp”) with its trademark fiery newgrass. It’s a consciously loose affair, imbued with a relaxed, insouciance and casual grace that recalls the Dead at its best moments.
“We’re getting closer to the answers to the questions of what we want to sound like,” Book said. “What we want to look like, what we want to look like to our fans.”
Ironically, it took its members being farther away from each other for the Stringdusters to get closer to that goal.
In 2013, banjoist Chris Pandolfi moved to Colorado to be a “ski bum” and “do the mountain thing,” Book said. Dobro player Andy Hall followed him. Fiddler Jeremy Garrett went back to Nashville, where he’s a fervent songwriter and session player. Guitarist Andy Falco returned home to Long Island to be closer to his family. Book stayed in Virginia, in Nelson County at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to raise his family. “We got some criticism from our friends,” said Book. “‘Oh, I don’t know how you can call yourselves a band if you don’t live in the same city.’ After seven or eight years as a band, I don’t know how we couldn’t live in separate places.”
The separation had a seemingly counterintuitive result: It made the Stringdusters more focused.
“I think it’s had a really positive effect on the band and the work flow, and our ability to get things done,” Book said. “When we were all in the same place, we were all in it all the time. There was always a sense that if we couldn’t get the thing done today, we could get it done tomorrow, because everyone was there, everyone was on call.”
“Now, when we’re together, it’s 100 percent, and when we’re not, it’s just 10 percent,” he continued. “So when we’re together, shit’s on fire. People are excited, people are motivated. This is our three weeks to just do this thing, knock out some music.”
That fire can be heard on Let It Go. Most especially on “The Winds of Change,” which catapults itself into a lengthy progressive jam session that finds all the Stringdusters playing with fierce energy. It builds to several whirling climaxes, Pandolfi and Garrett’s parabolic lead lines working in and out of shared harmony, and the guitars of Falco and Hall work in dissonant chromatic scalar runs as they climb ever higher. Its fever-pitched but laser-focused, the Stringdusters’ preternatural chemistry belying the band’s disjointed geography.
And despite its scattered roster, Charlottesville is still where the band comes to focus.
“We still really feel like this is our spiritual center,” Book said.
To wit, the Stringdusters’ management team is in Charlottesville. When they convene, they meet in Charlottesville. They filmed the video for “Let It Go” in an old church in town. And there’s still The Festy, the annual music festival that the band founded in 2009 at the Devils Backbone brewery.
“We’re all spread out,” says Book, “but this [Charlottesville] is still the place that I think, of all the places in the world, this place has the most gravity for us, and the most history.”
Thursday 3/13 The Jefferson Theater, 8pm