Charlotte's The New Familiars have slowly built up one heck of a fanbase around Charlotte, and the East Coast, for that matter. They're constantly on the road -- working on new songs, earning the admiration of new fans and also breaking in new band members.
It wasn't too long ago that singer/guitarist/banjo player Eric-Scott Guthrie ammicably parted ways with the group after deciding his music career and that of the band were on divergent pathways.
Guthrie was replaced by banjo/lap steel player Jordan Klemons in April and a new sound for the band started to take shape. Instead of something that was in an all-acoustic branch of Americana, The New Familiars started getting a little more plugged-in.
The band has been working on its upcoming album, Between the Moon and Morning Light, since the early part of this year. I was recently invited into Joe Kuhlman's NoDa-area studio to listen to some of what the band's put together so far, and ... well, so far, so good.
The first track I heard was "New River," which will be one of two song downloads available to all attendees of the band's Aug. 1 concert at the Neighborhood Theatre. One of the first things you hear on the track is the lap steel of Klemons, in addition to harmonies that are given some extra depth thanks to a guest appearance by Reeve Coobs. It's got a good acoustic groove to it and sounds a lot like most of The New Familiars' stuff, but there are hints of a plugged-in sound that shed some light on where the band may be headed.
"We're not trying to limit ourselves. We're playing what we like to hear and seeing where it takes us," singer/guitarist/mandolin player Justin Fedor says. "The studio is an awesome controlled experiment. We have spontaneity on stage, but we're able to try more things in the studio to see how they turn out."
The next song -- and second download -- was "All in All," written by bassist Pat Maholland and Fedor, which opens up with a banjo and turns into a foot-stomping, drinking song. There's some crowd noise and bottles clinking in the background which slowly builds into a screamed chorus that you'd expect will become a fan favorite if not one hell of a show-closer.
"Icarus" is a song the band has been playing for a while, but the addition of Klemons and drummer Daniel Flynn have given the song new qualities. It's a bit more electric behind Josh Daniel's vocals. A mandolin solo occurs before the song comes to an abrupt cutoff and Fedor is left singing over a guitar. It then breaks into the kind of march you'd expect to hear from a sacred steel band.
The final song I was offered a listen of was "Nine to Five," and no, it's not a cover. Banjo and lap steel once again set the mood for this folk rocker that looks at the monotony of working life. "Watching time fly by like fan blades," Fedor sings. There's almost a Beatles-esque chorus on the song, which fits the soundscape that includes a mellotron-like "Strawberry Fields" sound. The drums help give some depth while the electric vibe is bringing more volume to the song.
They're planning on having 11 tracks on the disc when all is said and done. Some of them have been written and road-tested while others have remained in the studio to be brought out in the future.
"I think the next chapter of the band's sound started in April at their last Neighborhood Theatre show," Kuhlman says. "The songs are all eclectic yet cohesive ... it sounds like its own radio station. They're doing the songs for themselves and not worrying about how they'll fit into each other."
Daniel notes that the varied abilities of each band member to play multiple instruments is letting the band "switch things up and keep it fun."
While the band has been writing for the new album -- which they hope to have completed by the end of the summer -- they've also gone about putting a new stamp on the older, more familiar songs. "New instruments have naturally restructured the songs," Klemons says. "Some of the old songs were worked on when I first joined the band and others have gotten new lives as we've played them on the road. Some of them just aren't played anymore."
While no setlist is likely to be completed until the day of the show or close to it, Maholland feels they'll play a fair amount of new stuff live. "It's a symbiotic relationship with the new stuff that's being done in the studio and what we're doing on the road," he says. "They're feeding off of each other and growing in their own ways."
As for the download, it's just something the band is offering as a thanks to local fans. Attendees will be given a card with a Web site address and password for downloading tracks. "We're excited to be offering the download," Fedor says. "We want to offer something different or new to our fans here each time we play here. It's our hometown."