The night at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton began the way most nights at the Biscuit do - with a desperate search for a parking space somewhere in the strip malls of the Big Pink along Mizner Boulevard. But that spot secured, and a mid-length sojourn by foot later, the Biscuit provided a welcoming atmosphere, with Fat Mannequin picking along onstage.
After a little more than three years together as a band, the Short Straw Pickers celebrated the release of their debut album, Upon That Hill, Saturday night, headlining a bill that included both Fat Mannequin and fellow string-band Uproot Hootenanny.
Fat Mannequin, one of several side projects for the boys from the jam band the Heavy Pets, allows guitarists Mike Garulli and Jeff Lloyd to explore their acoustic side. Given the nature of Garulli and Lloyd's main act, though, there was a distinctly hippy vibe to this undoubtedly string-band night. And why not? The newgrass revivalists like Yonder Mountain String Band have always drawn from the jam-band crowd, and folk influences informed even the granddaddy of the genre, the Grateful Dead.
Here, the dreadlocked masses mixed with a crowd about evenly split between older Boca-ites and college-aged types, probably out on the town after a week spent at FAU summer sessions. After Fat Mannequin's set, Lloyd talked over drinks for a while, proclaiming the Biscuit among his favorite new venues in South Florida, mainly for the sound quality of the space.
Still only in its second year, the Funky Biscuit has already become one of the premier concert venues in South Palm Beach County, and owner Al Poliak has plans to expand the space as soon as possible, hopefully giving Boca Raton the mid-sized concert venue it has long needed. But the current space was good enough for Saturday night, though the crowd got thick as the second band, Uproot Hootenanny, took the stage.
Despite this being the Short Straw Pickers' show, Uproot Hootenanny appeared to be the band most folks came out to see. After their high-energy set, the crowd thinned out noticeably before the Pickers took the stage. The group performed ably, but the Pickers' brand of string music is slower, more lyrical than the rave-up stuff of Uproot Hootenanny, and so the room lost some energy that the smaller crowd did nothing to ameliorate. Still, this band drew a sizeable crowd for a show that celebrated only its first album, which says as much about the South Florida scene as it does the band itself.
Even leaving aside the full bloom of the weird folk-punk scene in Lake Worth, South Florida has seen a number of folksy acts come up in the last few years, mirroring a national trend set by bands as diverse as the Lumineers, Fleet Foxes, the Avett Brothers, and Mumford and Sons, a trend now so mainstream it's even been co-opted by an American Idol winner (see: Phillip Phillips). Here, the folk resurgence has taken on a more Southern sound than in many other areas of the country. Granted, the music of the Avett Brothers could really have been created nowhere else but the American South, but in South Florida, the Southern tinge of the folk-rock sound has been put in overdrive. This is perhaps an overcompensation for the area being seen throughout the region as a sort of Yankee colony/third-world country -- anything but a true part of the old South that gave rise to this genre's antecedents.
As a result, we have bands like the Short Straw Pickers and Uproot Hootenanny, true throwbacks to the string bands of old, groups that make folks like Mumford and Sons seem quite 21st century by comparison. Although both bands could draw national comparisons to the aforementioned newgrass revivalists, the Pickers' arrival at the same time as the current crop of folk-rock bands seems to make comparisons to them more apt. Whichever the forebears, even if the Pickers' had a hard time maintaining the energy that filled the room after Uproot Hootenanny's set, the group -- guitarist/vocalist Jack Schueler, upright bassist Jeff Adkins, fiddler Brian Purwin, and multi-instrumentalist Billy Gilmore -- showed off technical prowess and gorgeous vocals that translated beautifully to the new album.
Upon That Hill is a filler-free, 14-song set that starts out strong with "Open Road" and "Jailhouse," finishing with a joke on the insistent irony of many folk songs with "Troubadour," a guitar-picking, fiddle-sawing tour de force on "Lemonade JG," and, finally, the closer "Free Horse," a ballad that cribs from the tried-and-true outlaw-on-the-run-comes-to-a-bad-end theme that has informed modern country music since Marty Robbins set down the lyrics to "El Paso" half a century ago.
All too often, fans of any given band will put on an album and, when met with disapproval, will remark that the band in question must be seen live to be truly appreciated. (Fans of jam bands are especially guilty of this.) But the Short Straw Pickers may be the opposite case. For a band so new, the perfection that can be achieved in the studio hasn't yet translated completely to the stage, particularly when the band has to follow a beast like Uproot Hootenanny. (That has also, it should be noted, been around almost two years longer and, in Gilmore, shares a member with the Pickers.) Still, it was a wild night and given the greatness of the album, the Pickers' future is wide open.
By Dan Sweeney
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