A Gem of a Band
Orpheum Bell plays at TOP June 30.
Pearls, Orpheum Bell's latest album, sounds like it's coming through a phonograph, all sepia-toned and ghostly. This is due in part to the band's old-time mix of country and bluegrass with a few other instruments thrown in--accordion, trumpet, saw, clarinet--that give it a unique gypsy-tinged flavor. But it's the voices and the lyrics that give it that time-capsule quality. The lead female vocalist, Merrill Hodnefield, sounds as if her maple syrup voice were plucked from the past. A slight nasally quality gives it a filtered sound, like it's traveled through a mile of Spanish moss before reaching your ears. With his gravelly voice, front man Aaron Klein channels Tom Waits, and his lyrics are a deft blend of sweet-dark imagery: "the blind girls dance crooked/and the pier's broken free/the tree's full of perfume/and it won't let me be." Songs are peppered with things like lockets and gambling pistols--nary a cell phone in sight.
But live, the band has a bewitching energy. They channel all of their old-timey vibes into a performance that's earthy and vibrant and makes you feel like you're witnessing--and simultaneously part of--an amazing artistic endeavor. For starters, they play a bewildering number of instruments. I counted something like twenty-three when I saw them at the Ark last fall: guitars, violins, mandolin, ukulele, dobro, double bass, saw, accordion, organ, trumpet, banjo... And a Stroh violin, which Klein explains was an 1899 invention that attached a horn to a violin skeleton for amplification. The technology was obsolete shortly after it was invented, making it a perfect instrument for a band that resurrects old forms.
Multiinstrumentalist Michael Billmire, who's responsible for most of the non-bluegrass instruments, played everything from a child-size organ to a trumpet with its end submerged in a bowl of water. The latter gave certain songs a 1940s jazzy feel, showcasing the band's ability to dip in and out of various genres without losing itself. But the instruments aren't just spectacle--each one is needed for
a particular sound, kneaded into a particular effect. Annie Crawford's violin alternately quakes and moans, a lovely complement to Hodnefield's wailing, lonesome saw. Serge van der Voo coaxes all of the percussive potential out of the double bass in pulses, thumps, and thwaps.
Although the performance is intense, it isn't super serious. These musicians know how to have a good time, and they even occasionally stray from their fine originals. They did a charming cover of Randy Newman's "Burn On" in three-part female harmony, with each of the vocalists also playing violin. They're playing at Top of the Park June 30, which should make for some fun old-fashioned outdoor entertainment.
[Originally published in June, 2010.]