Austin – The foghorn warning for folky music was sounded again last night when The Staves were set to play. Given that I’m not especially religious, the attraction to an episocopal church over the years is slightly embarrassing. Despite having a relatively low ceiling surfaces furnished with a sickly green industrial aluminum plates, St. David’s Historical Sanctuary retains the grand but intimate feeling of a place for quite reflections. You have to hand it to the religious bunch – they’ve known how to be pensive before it was hip. And it’s in that mindset that the 200 or so gathered started listening to Joe Banfi.
As the announcer from Communion Records shrank away the microphone, a tall/skinny (and not from Starbucks) Banfi ambled on and introduced himself. Hailing from Manchester, the songwriter started out in a band. Yet once you hear him sing there’s no doubt that such a voice would be oppressed in anything other than a solo. Starting from the sampler track called Nomads, Banfi unleashes his guttural roar every few bars, and the amplifiers made it reverberate semi-violently in every corner of the sanctuary that one wondered if it should temporarily change its name to St. David’s dungeon. But his voice is pleasant. One might think it’s an oxymoron, but I’d liken it to the DC metro – moments of furious, single-minded speed interspersed with streaming feet out of the subway. Within these bouts of caged-rage, the songs are poetic/interesting melodies set to some moody laments that generally expresses the more sour emotions. Separation, shame, severed head, etc. His voice being a little thin, it became a very apt amplifier of the emotions in his songs. At one point I think the audience was taken aback by the lyrics and decided to applause politely. There was definitely no shortage of stage presence – Banfi occupied the sanctuary like he belonged there. You can get a feel of it yourself from the sample below – his set was a very unique experience that is sure to win over a crowd as it did here.
The Staves are as much the epitome of folk as Joe Banfi is unique – comfortably charming in their 60s mannerisms and dress code, all while sporting the background story of learning guitar from their father growing up in Watford, England. Apparently one of the sisters missed a lesson with the lower two strings – so they actually have a song that suits that purpose. Last year, I missed their set just ahead of Ben Howard’s; but a sing-along at the very end with Howard, Kiwanuka and Co. got my attention and I made sure to see them this year. Before the concert, Communion dude politely asked that we the audience look over our shoulders to the right for a video documentary about the sisters’ travel this past year, which inspired the new album. I’d like to make a suggestion: next time, put the projection on the roof, because not everyone can twist their heads 135 degrees while being sandwiched by big Texan dudes and gals. But I digress. The Staves sails easily through different pace, melodies and refrains, but they shine in the harmonies. A problem with songwriting some times is that people tend to be overly ambitious about their ability when they are wasted from travel/drinking/sleeping-in-bed-bug-infested-motels. The sisters definitely left a wide margin for contingency – their singing was so sweet and effortless you’d be forgiven to think that they’ve skipped the eardrums and telepathically projected the voices into your head. Each would take the center stage in turn and we’d discover that each does indeed carry the tune differently. And no wonder they kept inventing names for their bandmates in the back (their “brothers”) – I hardly noticed their presence, but someone had to be playing that drum/cymbal. The bad news is that they will be in Europe/UK for most of this spring/summer. The good news? They already have a sizable following in UK and have gone on tour with Bon Iver and The Civil Wars in North America – so a headline tour won’t be a long wait away. Check on the pictures for more images from the concerts.