February full moon, mottled clouds over a peaceful lake. Most of the ski-and-skate week crowds were headed the other direction, down the road and out of town, while a different crowd of road warriors and local enthusiasts lit the communal fire once again, gathered for an intimate Sunday night extravaganza at the Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room with the Infamous Stringdusters and its most amazing special guest, Nicki Bluhm.
Before the initially sparse crowd could even remove its coats, an unexpected opening act captured hearts, and inspired tapping feet and swaying limbs, with its bold, vibrant playing and presence. Della Mae, Boston-formed and Nashville rooted (with member strands woven in from within Canada and the United States) enjoys a strong following all of its own. It has been compared to acts such as Avett Brothers and the Lumineers for its masterful and nuanced playing of traditional Americana instrumentation, and its deeply poetic lyrics – honest, personal, political and bound inexorably to life’s vicissitudes, joys and delights.
Sunday night’s show was no exception, as the women showcased songs from their recent third (self-titled) album, “Della Mae.” These are no fainting maids masquerading in what is – let’s face it – still more a “man’s” world than one inviting to women’s multiple and myriad ways of being in it. Yet, the Della Mae players break that mold, bringing strong, gutsy “womanist” (Alice Walker) femininity and performance chops to the stage, playing their hearts out in a grounded, saucy fury of fingers, strings and vocal harmonies straight out of Grandma’s church choir by way of the union meeting held after their day’s work in the coal mines. These women know their stuff, the language of music as protest and hope, the work of the people, the earth sustaining us, and the power of music and community to unite us in our commonalities.
Celia Woodsmith, a strong, engaging, fun-spinning front woman, led the vocals with her sonorous, strong and gutsy voice, hitting clear high notes as easily as she unleashed her deep throaty growl, a warm bellows flaming silky smooth liquid fire, a Mississippi blues woman laying it on thick for us to warm the chilly Tahoe night. I felt transported to the Bayou, then back up to Nashville, as these gals celebrated and called on many influences, from Americana to bluegrass, traditional old-timey music and dear ole Dolly Parton – acknowledging fondly to the audience that “we love her” – and letting loose a mesmerizing performance of “He’s Gonna Marry Me,” frolicking, rollicking, rousing and ringing.
Like being at a luminous barn dance, an indoor hoedown, the CBC’s wooden floor moved gently up and down as people danced to the amazing, good-time music. More gathered close to hear the great music wafting into the casino and bar. With its great rhythmic pulse electrified by Zoe Guigueno on stand-up bass, limbered by Courtney Hartman on banjo and guitar, woven amongst Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, and Jenni Lyn Gardner masterfully picking the mandolin, Della Mae offers an impressive lineup and solidarity in creative jams and vocal harmonies. Combining old-timey magic, strings and stories with modern concerns lyrically rendered, this band offers reckoning music that goes down as smooth as Southern Comfort laced with righteous Joe Hill consciousness and song.
Woodsmith led a fun percussive jam midway with just fingers and palms flying in a hand-jive of clapping, slapping, and cupping the air to make her deft drum play. Her smile never waning, she and the rest of the band sang and played their way through an industrious and lyrically profound set to warm us all up for the crowd pleasing Stringdusters, predicted to “melt your face off,” according to Woodsmith. And in fact, they did just that. But we were already warmed up and churning to “start a fire and they’ll never put it out,” with searing memories of Della Rae emboldened in our musical imaginations. Thank you Crystal Bay Club: you did it again.
To see Larry Sabo’s full set of photos from the show, click HERE