Friday, March 02, 2007

Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan: "Immersed in a community"

To get an inside perspective on the string-band renaissance, I chatted with Aoife O'Donovan, vocalist with Crooked Still, after the band's main stage set at Wintergrass. This was the first year that the band has been in the lineup here.

"It is more than a movement but a community of friends and of people inspiring each other. I feel really immersed in a community," she said. The week before the festival, band members from Crooked Still and The Infamous Stringdusters took time off together in Idaho, she said.

Crooked Still's regular lineup of O'Donovan, innovative cellist Rushad Eggleston, four-fingered banjoist Greg Lizst, and bassist Corey DeMarco got additional support at Wintergrass from fiddle standout Casey Driessen. Last year, when Lizst was on tour with Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions, How to Grow a Band's Noam Pikelny filled in on banjo.

[Photos: Crooked Still puts its own stamp on traditional American music. At bottom, Rushad Eggleston models his eye-grabbing costume.]

"It was great having Casey join us here, since we hadn't seen him since a festival in Denmark last year," O'Donovan said. The interplay between Driessen's soaring fiddle and Eggleston's driving cello made a striking sonic contrast, but O'Donovan said the group's core instrumentation suits its repertoire well.

"Banjo, cello and bass--how much more string-band can you get?" she said. "Although we have elements of bluegrass and old-time and folk and blues, we think of ourselves as a string band."

The Boston-based group got together six years ago when the members met each other during bluegrass jam sessions at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge MA. Each member also plays in other performing ensembles, but Crooked Still is their main gig, she said.

For example, O'Donovan also performs in a trio, Sometimes Why, with Kristin Andreasson of Uncle Earl and Ruth Ungar of The Mammals. In that setting, she performs some of her original songs, but Crooked Still's repertoire draws primarily from traditional sources.

"This band is not the vehicle for our own writing. We're really focused on reworking traditional tunes. Next week, we are going on retreat to work up five or six new songs, which we'll premiere in a hometown show the following week," she said.

2007 is a big festival year for the young band, with gigs on tap for Suwannee Springfest, Merlefest, Wakarusa, Telluride Bluegrass, Grey Fox, and the Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton folk festivals. In addition, the band will play festivals in Ireland, Scotland and Denmark.

"We have a big following in the British Isles because of my family background," she said. O'Donovan's father is a well-known Irish music performer and radio personality. "That's really how I got my start, with all these Celtic musicians around the house."

Aside from their music, one of Crooked Still's trademarks is the comical stage banter between bad-boy Eggleston and sometimes-exasperated O'Donovan.

"Rushad keeps us on the edge of our seats," she said. "When you have worked with someone for five or six years, you become really comfortable with them and that tends to come through on stage," she said.

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