By Robert Price New Jersey Herald
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — By all appearances, one might think Darlingside is a bluegrass band. Donning denim and flannel, with three members sporting beards, this quartet gathers around one condenser microphone to sing and play the typical instruments of the bluegrass genre — guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and … cello?
And that’s the giveaway, at least until this band of (unrelated) brothers starts singing. The cello isn’t a bluegrass instrument. Neither is the septavox. Or the synthesizer. Or even the electric bass.
And this isn’t a bluegrass band. This is … Baroque Americana.
This unique musical experience was on display Thursday night as Darlingside made their first trip to the Christmas City from their Cambridge, Mass., base. They played an hour-and-a-half set of all original indie rock featuring soaring four-part vocal harmonies at the Musikfest Cafe for an appreciative crowd of a few hundred.
Listeners of WXPN public radio recognized the first three songs because they’ve gotten significant airplay since the 2015 release of Darlingside’s second album, “Birds Say.” The ballad “The God of Loss” was a good opener, showing off the harmonic vocal chops right away.
The band followed that with “Go Back,” inspired by the film “Back to the Future 2” with lyrics like “I know you can’t live in the past but the only way to go is to go back.” A cappella portions of the song recalled Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
“White Horses,” Darlingside’s closest thing to a “hit” in this new age of music production, completed the mini-set on a solemn note with themes of haunting nostalgia and bleak winter inertia.
Blending ’60s folk, clever wry wit, classical arrangements, soaring harmonies and a modern indie-rock sensibility, the Darlingside ensemble constructs every piece collaboratively, pooling ideas so that each song bears the imprint of four different writing voices. Thanks to the acclaim “Birds Say” has generated, the four vocalists and multi-instrumentalists recently toured with Grammy winner Patty Griffin at sold-out venues including the Ryman and Fillmore theaters. They were also named Artist of the Year in 2016 by Folk Alliance International.
When bassist Dave Senft, guitarist and banjo player Don Mitchell, classical violinist and folk mandolinist Auyon Mukharji, and cellist and guitar picker Harris Paseltiner sing together, they splash their melodies with a sunny melancholy that brings their lyrics to vibrant life. Their music has subtle shadings from ’60s folk, chamber pop, bluegrass and classical music, but, really, it defies categorization.
Everything about this band is unique, not just its sound. The members are like equal teammates. There’s no frontman. There’s no main composer. Even the interludes of stories and jokes are shared evenly. The mic is fair game for anyone at any time.
“We’re a democratic group and it takes us three to eight years to write a song,” Paseltiner quipped.
The group formed in 2009 when the members met as undergraduates at Williams College in Massachusetts.
In 2010, the band went on their first national tour and released a self-produced six-track studio EP, “EP 1.” They released their debut full-length album, “Pilot Machines,” in 2012, and followed that up with the EPs “Woodstock” and “Whipoorwill.” It’s notable that “Woodstock,” in 2014, was a collaboration with Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, who grew up in Newton, Sandyston and Hamburg, and graduated from Wallkill Valley High School.
Thursday’s concert also featured the lighthearted “Harrison Ford,” with bursts of fractured harmonies set against cello and mandolin movements. The group played the title track from “Birds Say,” a layored song that, on the recorded version actually features 12 multi-tracked voices. “Good For You” and “My Gal, My Guy,” the encore, are both about life on the road, away from home. (“I wake up alone. Is it today or tomorrow … I wake up alone. Am I in Amsterdam or Tokyo?”)
In between the songs, all four members managed to poke plenty of good-natured fun at how many pronunciations there are of Bethlehem (four?), whether Peeps candy originated in Bethlehem or Lancaster, and even the SteelStacks venue itself.
“It’s great to be here in the presence of such majestic, bizarre looking things,” Mukharji said, of the old Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces.
A highlight of the show was a new song, “Escheton” (end of the world, in Greek), which will be on the group’s upcoming third album, due out in the spring. The song featured electronic effects not often heard in Darlingside’s previous music.
As if there was ever any doubt, beyond appearances, this song definitely dispels any myth that Darlingside is a bluegrass band.