Music Interviews
5:58 am
Sun July 29, 2012

Spirit Family Reunion: Music For Church Basements

Originally published on Tue July 31, 2012 4:24 pm

It's summer. It's hot. And that means it's time for a particular kind of music: the kind that streams from church basements and empty lots, raising your spirit as high as the mercury. It's revival season.

Spirit Family Reunion isn't from Appalachia or the plains; the band is from Brooklyn. Its music, though clearly Americana-based, casts a wide enough net to elude classification.

"We don't really have a definition for it," says guitarist Nick Panken. "A lot of people call us a bluegrass band, which is false. Some people call us an old-time band, which is also false. But we definitely are very inspired and take a lot from those traditional bands."

"I think a lot of what we try to do is provide the spirit of gospel music without being a particular faith or excluding any faith," adds fiddle player Mat Davidson. "Open-door gospel, I guess."

Panken and Davidson are joined in Spirit Family Reunion by drummer Peter Pezzimenti, bassist Ken Woodward, banjo player Maggie Carson and washbord player Stephen Weinheimer. The six members travel the country in a beat-up Chevy conversion van, along with their instruments.

Though they're unsigned, they are still making their way to the stages of some major music festivals — including the Newport Folk Festival, where they played this weekend. But before they did, Spirit Family Reunion stopped by NPR to chat with David Greene and perform some songs from their new album, No Separation.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Its summer and its time for a particular kind of music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: ...that streams from church basements and empty lots. Songs that raise your spirit as high as the mercury. It's revival season.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN ROCKY ROAD")

SPIRIT FAMILY REUNION: (Singing) When I go to Baltimore, I don't need carpet on my floor. Grab your coat and follow me, I know a man in Galilee. Green rocky road...

GREENE: This is Spirit Family Reunion. They're not from Appalachia or the Plains. They're from Brooklyn. And remember the first line of this song: When I go to Baltimore, I don't need carpet on my floor? Well, for these musicians that's not just a lyric.

Where did you spend the night last night on your way to Washington?

MAGGIE CARSON: My Aunt Gail's house and my Uncle Peter's house up in Baltimore, Some of us on the floor, some of us in my cousin's kids' beds which are about four feet long.

GREENE: Is that a typical night on the road with Spirit Family Reunion?

STEPHEN WEINHEIMER: Those were good accommodations...

KEN RICHARDSON: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINHEIMER: ...compared to what we usually have.

GREENE: Yup, they even traveled the country in a beat-up Chevy conversion van, all six of them.

PETER PEZZIMENTI: Hi, this is Peter Pezzimenti. I'm drums in Spirit Family Reunion.

CARSON: Hi, I'm Maggie Carson. I play the banjo.

MAT DAVIDSON: Hi, I'm Matt and I play fiddle.

NICK PANKEN: Hello, I'm Nick. I play guitar.

RICHARDSON: I am Ken and I play bass.

WEINHEIMER: I'm Stephen and I'm the washboarder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN ROCKY ROAD")

REUNION: (Singing) Tell me, who do you love?

GREENE: And the last four do have last names. That would be Mat Davidson, Nick Panken, Ken Richardson and Stephen Weinheimer. Spirit Family Reunion is an unsigned band but they are still making their way to the stages of some major music festivals. This weekend, they played the Newport Folk Festival. But before they did, we asked the band to drive that beat-up van to our studios here in D.C., for our own live show.

Wow, that's quite a sound. I have the six members of the band here in front of me. And I wonder before we get started, help us define your sound and your music.

PEZZIMENTI: A lot of people call us a bluegrass band, which is false. Some people call us an old-time band, which is also false. But we definitely are very inspired from those traditional bands.

DAVIDSON: I think a lot of what we try to do is provide the spirit of gospel music without being a particular faith or excluding any faith. But, yeah, open-door gospel, I guess.

GREENE: I do kind of imagine you guys not in a studio like this, but in a tent revival. I mean that's this kind of sound this reminds me of.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, we kind of have the most fun playing in non-orthodox places out in the field or by a river, or on the street; wherever people can kind of congregate without having bought a ticket on the Internet for it or without, you know, having to show their I.D. at the door.

GREENE: I know that busking is something you guys are still doing on the streets of New York from time to time.

DAVIDSON: Yes, that's true. We do. We do. That's how we try to make a little spending money in the city when we're home.

GREENE: What is your best busking song? What do you turn to when you're out there and you're like, we really need some money today?

PEZZIMENTI: "Buffalo Girls," right?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIDSON: We like to keep it up tempo. That's kind of when we get the most traditional, when we're playing on the street trying to get a crowd to stick with us.

CARSON: We do an old song called "Baltimore Washington" I was thinking of this morning as we drove that way. That's a good busking one.

GREENE: Well, can we hear a little bit of that?

DAVIDSON: "Baltimore Washington," versus taken from Woody Guthrie's version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALTIMORE WASHINGTON")

REUNION: (Singing) I gambled down in the town of Newport News, more than I gambled. Boys, the more I lose from Baltimore to Washington. Oh, Baltimore to Washington. Oh, Baltimore to Washington. Oh, Baltimore to Washington. I guess that they got troubles too. Well, the hobos know me, up and down the line. And they don't know that they don't know the trouble on my mind. I guess that they got troubles too. I guess they got troubles too. I guess they got troubles too. I guess they got troubles too, from Baltimore to Washington.

(Singing) And the police know me up and down the line. They don't know. They don't know these troubles on my mind. I guess 'cause that they got troubles too. I guess they got trouble too. I guess they got troubles too. I guess the police, they got their troubles too, from Baltimore to Washington.

GREENE: You know, as I watch you guys play a song like that, and three of you are grouped up all together - kind of crowded around each other around the microphone. Is that part of your style?

PANKEN: Yeah, I mean, you kind of learn to sing together on the streets without any microphones. So when we started to play shows we also were not playing with any microphones...

(LAUGHTER)

PANKEN: ...in bars and kind of small places. Eventually, when we got up onto a stage this was kind of the best way we could simulate just sitting around playing, sort of the traditional style amongst a lot of bluegrass and old-time bands, just using one microphone that everybody pays into instruments and singing, this kind of artful dance around the large diaphragm condenser mic.

GREENE: Stephen, you're holding a washboard there.

WEINHEIMER: Yes, I am.

GREENE: And you're holding a fork, I see.

WEINHEIMER: I'm holding two forks just so the listeners out there know...

GREENE: Get the image.

WEINHEIMER: ...I do not have spoons. I don't use spoons. I don't use thimbles, they're too quite. These forks, one's from the Waldorf Astoria...

(LAUGHTER)

WEINHEIMER: ...Nick stole that for me. And the other one I think is from the 92nd Street Y. I didn't steal that if you're listening.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Do forks from expensive hotels have a particular sound to them?

WEINHEIMER: Well, not. It's all about like anything. You know, something is expensive if it weighs a lot. And also, with the forks, I like having some weight behind them so I can actually, you know, play well. You know.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORK MUSIC)

GREENE: You're not signed, which makes me wonder if you guys have day jobs that you have to keep to, you know, keep the money coming in?

WEINHEIMER: Well, some of us have day jobs like really early in the day. Some of us have night jobs that go into the next day. I work at a bar and Mat delivers cookies sometimes. And Maggie works with her dad and Pete fixes bicycles. Ken and Nick just look pretty and get paid for that, I guess. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PANKEN: That's not true.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINHEIMER: I have nothing against a recording contract, but we don't need it. We have no problems releasing our records on our own. That being said...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And that being said.

WEINHEIMER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BANJO)

PEZZIMENTI: Oh, you boys want to do it?

RICHARDSON: Yup.

PEZZIMENTI: All right, let's hit it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE ME WINGS")

REUNION: (Singing) Ever since I found the light, having something in my life makes me feel I've gone away and be at rest. I feel it, Lord. If my soul is heaven bound, who the hell are all around make me feel I've found a way to be a rest? Give me wings. Give me wings. Give wings, wings, wings of faith to fly away to be at rest. Give me wings. Give me wings. Oh, give wings...

GREENE: You guys are really fascinated by songs from the past, from another era. A lot of younger musicians these days seem to be getting into alt-country, bluegrass from the past, folk from the past, gospel. Is there something missing for this generation today that you have to kind of reach back to...

DAVIDSON: I mean, this is traditional music so, you know, we're young people from Brooklyn and just a small microcosm of the country. And for many, many people, it's not a fad or a new, you know, curiosity. I mean, it's their life, you know. But we happen to be the ones, I guess, kind of taking up a lot of space on the Internet and being very visible. So I guess a lot of people think of this as a new style, or a new throwback, or a new fascination. But in reality it's our country's national, you know, music. I mean, it's our traditional music.

GREENE: Did you worry that some people will see it as a fad? Like, oh, it's, you know, some more musicians from Brooklyn who are kind of trying to get gospel and, you know, get old-time on us?

WEINHEIMER: Definitely, but I don't know who originally said it, but haters are going to hate, you know? You can do whatever you want. And the reason I think people appreciate us and listen to our music is 'cause they see it as honest. And maybe there's people out there that it doesn't feel that way. But I guarantee if you come to our show, you're not going to be talking crap anymore. You know?

And I'd also like to say that, you know, we love older music. But there's plenty of new music that's great too. If people are stuck in the old times, they're blinded. There's plenty of great music now, too.

GREENE: I want to say good-bye to you guys. And then see if there's a song that you want to kind of play us out on. But first of all, thank you guys so much for stopping in and for bringing your sound to us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you for having us.

RICHARDSON: It's been a pleasure to be here.

GREENE: All right, play us out on something.

DAVIDSON: We like to end a lot of our shows with song. It's called "When My Name Is Spoken."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MY NAME IS SPOKEN")

REUNION: (Singing) It'll roll in from the East like a ship returned from sea. It'll ring out through the West across golden valleys. Rising up from the South, that's where I want to be if someone is crowding on me. When my name is spoken I will answer. When my name is spoken I will answer. I will lay down my worries and my troubles. I ain't got no friend like you...

GREENE: You can hear more songs from Spirit Family Reunion on our website, npr.org. And you can find their new album, "No Separation," on their website SpiritFamilyReunion.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MY NAME IS SPOKEN")

GREENE: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MY NAME IS SPOKEN")

REUNION: (Singing) When my name is spoken I will answer. When my name is spoken I will answer. I will lay down my worries and my troubles. I ain't got no friend like you. Oh, I ain't got no friend like you.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIDSON: Broken string.

RICHARDSON: I guess that means it's the end. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.