The Stray Birds formed in Pennsylvania around 10 years ago when Maya de Vitry returned to her home town from a vacation in Spain and met Oliver Craven. The pair were both fiddle players, guitarists and songwriters and began performing together at open mic nights. Before long they roped in bassist Charlie Muench and the trio have been performing, writing and recording ever since. Tonight they are augmented by drummer Dominic Billet whose understated contributions add an extra dimension to the band’s songs without ever threatening to overpower them. On their new album Magic Fire, the band have added some new elements to their sound including keyboards and electric and pedal steel guitars, giving them a more contemporary Americana sound but tonight, even with the benefit of Billet’s drums, their performance is stripped back to reveal their core strengths.
Those strengths are evident as soon as The Stray Birds open with the title song from their 2014 album, Best Medicine. Craven’s dazzling dobro is supported by de Vitry’s guitar and Muench’s agile stand up bass. Clustered round a central microphone, the trio conjure up harmonies so close that an anorexic amoeba would struggle to squeeze between them without having to say “excuse me”.
Centring around the new album, the band play two 45 minute sets, offering no end of opportunities for the band to showcase their skills. Both de Vitry and Craven switch between guitar and fiddle with Craven adding dobro and mandolin in to the mix; both providing lead vocals on their own songs. And their songs are The Stray Birds’ secret weapon. From Best Medicine onwards, these are songs that seem as familiar as old friends, even on first time of hearing. The chorus of Mississippi Pearl has been a constant ear worm for over a day now. A special mention is also due for Charlie Muench whose bass lines often incorporate a touch of Southern soul, reminding me of Muscle Shoals veteran David Hood or The Band’s Rick Danko. The spirit of The Band is also present in Dominic Billet’s loose-limbed, Levon-esque drumming.
Covers of Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta, The Louvin Brothers’ When I Stop Dreaming and Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel #7 – “NOT #5” Muench reminds the band, probably somewhat unnecessarily, just before they start – provide a bit of variety, not that any is required. The final song, Sabrina, is dedicated to the young girl sitting next to me – not because her name is Sabrina but because she went to school with Maya de Vitry’s brother. This turns out to be another ear worm that is drilling its way through my head right now. The night ends with an encore of When I Die, a track from the new album that Oliver Craven brought to the band as “a piece of homework”, each band member being instructed to write and sing their own verse. Apparently, this instruction has been extended to guest vocalists from fellow performers so that the song often takes on a new life of its own. As there are no guests tonight, the extra verse is provided by drummer Dominic.
This is not the band’s first visit to Edinburgh and on the strength of tonight’s reception I certainly don’t think it will be their last. I really can’t recommend The Stray Birds highly enough. If they are playing near you, you should, er, flock to see them.