Live review: Howlin' Brothers, Evening Muse (5/10/2013)

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The Howlin' Brothers
Evening Muse
May 10, 2013

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Dressed in overalls, work shirts and straw hats while toting upright bass, acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle, the Howlin' Brothers look every bit the southern Appalachian string band. It doesn't matter that the trio hails from north of the Mason-Dixon line and that they're not even brothers. Every whoop, holler and plucked string rings authentic and true.

Taking the Evening Muse stage on Friday night with little fanfare, the trio launched into its breakout hit "Big Time." Co-written with the Allman Brothers'/Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes, the rollicking upbeat stomp encapsulates the Brothers' contradictory appeal. The song is a bit of the haunted timeless blues of Charlie Patton and a touch of the hardscrabble country yodel of Jimmie Rodgers, all rolled up into a pop-folk, heel-kicking hootenanny. Not only do the bits and pieces of folk, bluegrass, country blues, funk and rock work, The Howling Brothers make you wonder why all folk-pop doesn't blend genres so effortlessly and
organically.

There's no real front man with this collective. Banjo/fiddle/mandolin player Ian Craft, guitarist/ harmonica player Jared Green and bassist Ben Plasse all traded-off on vocals, and their "aw-shucks-all-this-fuss-over-little-old-us" demeanor was at odds with the fiery intensity of their playing. The Brothers put on a noisy, shouty, raucous show, complete with honest-to-goodness howling. The performance was just as gutsy as it was good-timey.

The band's loosey-goosey stage presence was reinforced by Craft's self-deprecating patter. He encouraged the crowd to shout the title of down-home shuffle "Gone" by claiming that the one-word chorus was "as intricate as something a beat poet would come up with." Later, when Craft mentioned that "Big Time" will soon be featured on NASCAR TV spots, he pretended to know little about racing, guessing that Ricky Martin and Christine Aguilera were hotshot circuit drivers.

Despite Craft's avuncular attitude and gentle joshing, the band was smart and razor sharp, its playing was focused. Indeed, Green peeled out a breakneck guitar workout on the foot stomping "Soldier's Joy" without missing a beat on his spirited clogging that provided the song's intricate percussion. When he jumped offstage, clogging and playing out into the audience, Green's intense footwork rivaled the manic stepping of West Virginia wild-man (and recovering lighter-fuel huffer) Jesco White.

Not to be outdone, bassist Plasse's lead vocal on country blues "I Can't be Satisfied" echoed the urgency of a Mississippi field holler. As for Craft, his slide banjo seared and soared, recalling B.B. King's fretwork on his beloved guitar Lucille. Craft's rapid descending fiddle runs on the John Hartford cover "Julia Belle Swain" transformed the original's country swing into a rousing barn-burner. At times, Craft's bow look set to saw through the neck of his instrument.

Throughout the evening, Craft, Green and Plasse played off each other with telepathic ease, shifting seamlessly to the Dr. John inspired funk of "Delta Queen," the obsessed and accelerating blues of "My Dog Can't Bark" and the jazzy Stephane Grappelli flavored swing of "Tennessee Blues."

By the time Craft encouraged the crowd to "put on your dancing pants", he didn't have to tell anyone twice. Couples, including folk duo Elenowen who played at the Muse earlier in the evening, two-stepped and dosey-doed nonstop. Onstage, The Howling Brothers beamed and played happily, clearly having as much fun as their enthralled and joyful audience.

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