The Crane Wives bill themselves as an indie folk group, even deriving their name from an album by one of that genre’s original stalwarts, the Decemberists. But despite the presence of a banjo, mostly acoustic instrumentation, and vocal harmonies, the Crane Wives push far beyond the boundaries of folk, even its more loosely defined “indie” variant. With danceable rhythms, poppy hooks, and powerful vocals, the Crane Wives’ folk is infused with plenty of rock and considerable soul.
Based in the Grand Rapids area, the band’s five members are all products of Grand Valley State University. The group got its start in 2010 in a most inauspicious location: a Chinese restaurant in Grandville, where vocalists and guitarists Emilee Petersmark and Kate Pillsbury worked. Starting out there as a duo playing on weekends, Petersmark and Pillsbury soon outgrew the establishment and expanded their ranks to include banjo player Tom Gunnels, drummer/vocalist Dan Rickabus, and bassist Ben Zito.
The Crane Wives–who are scheduled to perform at the Ark on Saturday, September 6–have since recorded two full-length albums and played numerous gigs across the Midwest. But the essence of the band’s live performance still lies with the women who got it all started. Petersmark and Pillsbury stand front and center with acoustic guitars, and their unassuming presences, slight figures, and hipster-ish clothing might suggest some pretty, low-key balladry in the offing. While the product of their combined talents is certainly pretty, it’s anything but low-key. The front women are true powerhouses, with stirringly soulful voices that frequently intertwine in gorgeous harmony. The relationship between these old friends is close (they share a “band tattoo”) and playful–smiles pass between them onstage as they bounce vocal phrases off one another. They’re a pleasure to hear and see.
Though the women are the focus, the Crane Wives’ male contingent is integral to the band’s joyful energy. Gunnels brings dexterity (and the occasional outbreak of punk-style pogoing) to his banjo work, while Zito’s solid bass quietly holds things down. Rickabus fills out the vocal harmonies from behind the drum kit while providing the simple but propulsive rhythms that drive the Crane Wives’ tunes. Whether adapting a metal-ish riff for banjo, grooving on a ska rhythm, or utilizing a drumbeat that wouldn’t be out of place on a hip-hop track, they bring considerable stylistic range to the folk template. And the melodic hooks are hard to shake, from the exquisite church bell-mimicking close of “Counting Sheep” to the melancholy elongations of the phrase “Oh, my love” in “October.”
The band drew an unusual recognition in 2011 from the man who inspired its name, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy–he discovered the Crane Wives’ album during an NPR interview and took a picture holding it. While the band hasn’t otherwise made the breakthrough to national attention, a busy statewide touring schedule gives us plenty of regular opportunities to catch this group of unconventional folkies in full-blown, exuberant action.