SKY HIGH: The Stray Birds really took off after NPR called their debut one of the top 10 folk/Americana albums of last year.
“It’s not about virtuosic playing,” says Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds’ sudden popularity on the folk circuit. Of course, the individual members of the Lancaster County-based old-time/new acoustic-music trio are classically trained, so they have the chops. “It is playing together,” de Vitry continues. “We give people a taste of what happens before the concert — and again after.”
A Stray Birds show is not a jam session. They have complex arrangements, ones made more challenging due to the choreography required for their customized, three-mic setup: one high for vocals and two at waist level for banjo and guitar, with a little fill from the tiny mics on the fiddles and bass.
“We don’t use any monitors. Many bands get a special mix, but we can’t use them with these mics. It took a while to get the positioning. The bows are like tiny swords.” Given that there can be two fiddles and a bass sawing away on some of the tunes, the challenge is obvious. But the band loves to play like they would offstage, listening hard to one another, making the tiny adjustments that keep the music live and lithe.
In 2010 de Vitry joined with fellow multi-instrumentalist Oliver Craven, working out originals they had each written and exploring their shared knowledge of old-time tunes. Craven’s family band had him playing bluegrass and old time early on, and de Vitry’s family also played music and loved attending old-time festivals. Bassist Charles Muench joined them to record their first EP and the chemistry was instantaneous.
Their self-titled, self-released debut scored a spot on NPR’s top 10 Folk & Americana albums of 2012. This was a turning point for the young band. Soon they went from playing small clubs around New England — returning to de Vitry’s old stomping ground from her days at Berklee where she studied with Mark Simos and Darol Anger — to enthusiastic acceptance at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance. They showcased at Folk Alliance International in Toronto this February, and, this summer, got booked at major festivals like Falcon Ridge and this weekend’s Philly Folk Fest, where they’ll play the main stage.
So what’s the Stray Birds’ secret? Devotion. De Vitry laughs when she recalls a recent workshop where another performer was musing over the million reasons you can find not to practice your instrument. This trio’s joyful interplay makes rehearsal sound pretty sweet. It also helps to have three equal partners, each swapping instruments and lead-vocal duties.
“Like at a jam, you take turns,” says de Vitry. “No one single person is the center of attention.”
The Stray Birds play the main stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival Fri., Aug. 16, 2:30 p.m. See more picks from the fest here.
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