The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside: The Twain Shall Meet
By Robert Burke Warren
Americana road warriors The Grand Slambovians (left) and string-band pop upstarts Darlingside (right) are excited to share the bill at the esteemed Norfolk, CT venue Infinity Hall, in part because each band reveres the other, but also because of Mark Twain. Legend has it the Bard of American Letters appeared on the same stage in the Gay Nineties (the century before last’s Gay Nineties), when the icon undertook speaking tours to pay off debts, and the building was a combination theater, saloon, and barbershop known as the Norfolk Opera House.
“You’re kidding!” says Slambovians’ frontman, guitarist, and main songwriter Joziah Longo from his home in Cold Spring, NY. Although his band is a favorite at Infinity Hall, he’s only just learned that Twain tread the one-hundred-twenty-year-old floorboards. “That’ll give a certain traction to the evening,” he says.
“Oh my goodness,” laughs Auyon Mukharji, violinist/mandolinist/singer for Massachusetts-and-Maine-based Darlingside. “We can say Mark Twain opened for us.”
One can only wonder what the erstwhile Samuel Clemens would make of these two acts, but one thing’s for sure: he’d recognize most of the instruments they wield. The Grand Slambovians, entering their fifteenth year as the self-professed “Hillbilly Pink Floyd,” rely heavily on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and accordion to create “melodic avant folk.” This mix, honed over the course of countless tours, numerous “Grand Slambovian Extra-Terrestrial Hillbilly Pirate Balls,” and four studio CDs, has earned the quartet a reputation as a must-see rock and roll circus.
Similarly, Darlingside showcases a unique blend of cello, violin, mandolin, electric bass, guitar, drums, and lush, beguiling five-part harmonies reminiscent of everything from choral music to the Beach Boys to vocal jazz. Riding atop it all is the one-two punch of bassist David Senft’s pure rock tenor and guitarist Don Mitchell’s edgy croon, each singing plaintive, exuberant songs of the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons variety. In addition to quickly developing an ardent following at east coast colleges and clubs, Darlingside’s homemade EP nabbed them L.A. producer Nathaniel Kunkel (Sting, Maroon 5, Crosby/Nash). Impressed, Kunkel flew east and turned their Massachusetts home into a studio, capturing the band’s essence on their well received 2012 debut CD Pilot Machines. A video of Pilot Machines’ gorgeous ballad “The Ancestor” recently garnered a “staff pick” on Vimeo.
For both groups, however, the deepest desire is to hit the stage and dazzle the people. In an ever-more synthetic, sample-and-Autotune-driven age, both The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside are old-school showfolk. “What we’re most proud of is our live show,” says Mukharji, who earned a Watson fellowship to study mandolin and lute in Turkey, Brazil, and Ireland, after which he opted for a rock band over a career in medicine. “We’re five really close friends from school and we still really like each other, which is remarkable considering how much time we spend together.”
Not surprisingly, both bands move lots of merch, mostly at shows, when fans both new and old simply must have a tangible souvenir of a transcendent experience. In addition to the usual CDs and DVDs, the Slambovians offer coffee and artisanal chocolate, while Darlingside, despite coming of age in the download era, takes pride in the self-designed, visually appealing Pilot Machines. “We spent a lot of time putting it together,” says Mukharji.
The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside first crossed paths at the recent Middletown, CT “Midnight on Main” New Year’s Eve event, and a mutual admiration society was born. “Darlingside’s very visual,” says the flamboyant Longo, whose glammy stage attire rivals Captain Jack Sparrow on some nights, top-hatted Marc Bolan on others. “And I really want to bring some new blood in.” Although the Slambovians rarely use opening acts, they enthusiastically agreed to a double bill.
Infinity Hall’s entertainment director Jack Forchette, onetime counsel to Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead, is thrilled that “organic” acts like the Grand Slambovians (“They’re tremendous,” he says) and Darlingside (“I love to give young bands a shot”) are still packing them in. For him, it’s vindication. Undeterred by the rising number of couch potatoes, he took over Infinity Hall in 2008, intent on creating a dream venue for both artists and live music fans. Judging from recent bookings like Tori Amos, Keb’ Mo, Cowboy Junkies, and Wilson Phillips, all of which are part of the PBS series Infinity Hall Live, he has succeeded.
So don’t be surprised if, while enjoying top-notch troubadours The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside at this august venue, you catch sight of a handlebar-mustachioed ghost, bobbing his head and drawling, “Rumors of the death of live music are greatly exaggerated.