Last Saturday night, two phenomenal bands graced the Lobero Theatre’s stage as part of Lobero’s current “Sings Like Hell” series. Austin-based folk-rock band Wheeler Brothers opened for the up-and-coming bluegrass quintet Joy Kills Sorrow. It is safe to say that both bands blew away the Lobero’s sizable audience.
The Sings Like Hell concert series strives to present “The Greatest Music You’ve Never Heard!” to Santa Barbara audiences every year. Luckily for me, I had actually heard of Joy Kills Sorrow or I would not have gotten to experience the group’s fantastic opener.
I was so pleasantly surprised by Wheeler Brothers, who used their refreshing mixture of indie Austin sound with more traditional Texan folk-inspired harmonies to bring incredible energy to the stage. Drummer Patrick Wheeler rocked a Native American headdress for the entire show; need I say more?
My only regret is that I did not see them at an outdoor venue with a nice, young, folk-loving crowd. The group was almost too much for the Lobero’s small stage — I would have loved to see them at a venue that allowed people to get up and dance as much as they made me want to. The group is playing during South by Southwest this year; maybe I will make it down to Austin and have my chance.
After a brief intermission, Boston-based Joy Kills Sorrow took the stage. My bluegrass-loving self has been listening to this band for a while and had very high expectations. Each band member has so much experience with his or her instrument and many have received extremely high honors in the music world. These accolades are made doubly impressive by the fact that the band members are all so young — a curious thing to see in the world of traditional music.
The group did not disappoint. As soon as they took the stage, singer Emma Beaton and bassist/songwriter Bridget Kearney began joking with each other and with the audience, and a calm descended on the theater. Each of them, especially Beaton who interacted the most with the crowd, was a natural on stage. The group’s presence put the audience at ease, and I suspect also helped to lull even the most skeptical audience members into submission, eagerly awaiting the beautiful melodies to follow.
Though I have used the word “bluegrass” to categorize Joy Kills Sorrow, the truth is the group’s music is reflective of quite a few influences. Beaton got started singing and playing Scottish music on the cello while growing up in British Colombia. Kearney studied jazz bass at The New England Conservatory of Music. Mandolinist Jacob Joliff has performed with bluegrass legends like David Grisman and Mike Marshall (side note: I saw Joliff perform at a bluegrass festival when I was 14, and he was already amazing then).
Joy Kills Sorrow may play “traditional music,” but they play it with their own spin, and an effective one at that. The quick, virtuosic technique of guitarist Matthew Arcara, banjoist Wesley Corbett and mandolinist Joliff brought great energy to songs like “New Man.”
Beaton spoke to me after the show about the group’s songwriting process and mentioned “New Man,” written by Kearney’s friend Michael Calabrese, specifically.
“He sent it as a demo of him playing guitar and singing. When we started playing it, we wanted it to be very fast, with the whole band coming in at once … but there was something about the four instrumentalists’ parts — we couldn’t keep it up to tempo and locked in. We thought, ‘this is close but there is one variable we have to change,’” Beaton said. “Now, it’s even more rocking than it used to be.”
Beaton explained that it sometimes takes a long time to get a song exactly right, but that the process is vital. Listening to the finished product, one can see this depth behind each song, even if one does not know every step or version that got them there.
While only a few songs, like “New Man,” made me want to get up and dance like a fool (I admit this is how I usually judge traditional music), the band’s slower, more melancholic songs gave me goose bumps and I had to just close my eyes and listen.
“Such Sweet Alarms” is probably one of the, well, sweetest songs in the band’s repertoire. Beaton’s incredible voice washed over the theater, echoing sentiments of young love: “Making love so soon / they may too early bloom / and freeze before they know the cost. … What a handsome scene / when love won’t wait for spring / and rosebuds frozen in the frost.”
One can hear the influence of other poets and authors on Kearney, the group’s principle songwriter. Kearney, who also studied English at Tufts University, believes songwriting is similar to writing stories.
“[It’s] like Hemingway’s idea that to start writing a story, all you have to do is write one true sentence,” Kearney said in a past interview. From these one true lines, Joy Kills Sorrow’s songs grow into stories we can all relate to and appreciate.
The band’s latest album, This Unknown Science, is full of such stories. What is even better is that they are not told only with words but with the skills of five extremely talented young musicians. I highly recommend the album, as well as seeing Joy Kills Sorrow live if you ever get the chance — and I have a feeling you will. This group is only at the beginning of what promises to be a fantastic musical journey.