Cabinet and the Art of Bluegrass
Posted Monday, February 13, 2012 12:45 PM
It "looks like it would break if you breathed on it the wrong way, like a server carrying champagne glasses. But somehow, by the end of an evening," says Cabinet's Todd Kopec of his fiddle, "I'm gripping it like hammer, or a sword." During one of Cabinet's winding instrumental jams, the delicate instrument does seem explosive in his hands. He's a member of a six-man band blending convivial bluegrass tradition with an intelligent, synced appreciation for all music. Not really what one would expect from Scranton.
Since you probably haven't seen them yet: slouching center stage is Dylan Skursky, alternating from electric to stand-up bass with a sleepy gaze and mesmerizing fast fingers. Jami Novak is a solid, ponytailed spine on drums and Kopec stands way left, the fiddle tucked under his grin. In front are mandolinist JP Biondo and cousin Pappy Biondo on three-fingered banjo. The banjo is its player surrogate- charming, laid-back and twangy, while JP's sweetly muscular vocals and careful side part are less country, more violin. He leads old and regretful songs. Next to him, contrasting a ramrod posture with a raucous and soulful delivery, guitarist Mickey Coviello is all wild energy paired with a hardy object... something like bluegrass itself.
The music's generational highlights began in the 30's with convivial acoustics and Bill Monroe's unmistakable voice and ear for styles. Around WWII, Monroe and collaborators were adding trademark instruments and building on genres- jazz, mountain, ragtime. The Bluegrass Boys became the standard by which the bluegrass genre is measured. Descendants of the Monroe Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs, artists like Punch Brothers, Union Station and mandolinist Chris Thile, pioneered the expressive newgrass movement. Recently Thile and collaborator Michael Daves stood at a single microphone at Lincoln Center's intimate Allen Room in skinny jeans and tousled hair. Marrying traditional yowls, Appalachian tragedies and a few hip wiggles, spectators felt inches from their instruments and hearts. Bluegrass is old stuff by hot new things with the guts for high lonesome sound.
Like 25-year-olds Mickey Coviello and JP Biondo, playing on a 12-string acoustic and a mandolin tuned in open G as Pennsylvania teens nearly a decade ago. JP's cousin Pappy visited them annually from Cleveland, joining on guitar. At 19, Pappy packed a van, picked up a homeless dog on the way out, and joined them. Then a house painter, wisps of bluegrass and folk drifted from the radio through homes his crew worked in. The banjo was a clue in a treasure hunt. Coviello and the cousins picked up the other band members at a jazz club in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Having signed with Ropeadope, they're now on their second studio album. Cabinet tours constantly, playing rodeos, former WWII aircraft factories and opera houses. They return on New Year's Eve to play the club they met in.
The "musical equivalent of the backroad scenic route," their shows experiment with styles, rhythms, and unpredictable elements like audience, a particular stage, the moon. Giddy originals like 'Old Farmer's Mill' are swung into with convivial tradition, while reggae emerges in the B section of "Treesap". In their "Wagon Wheel" cover, the Dylan/ Secor pedigree is evident in the hopeful, happy lyrics. When Cabinet plays it, strangers dance with each other, real close. Kopec imagines the band as a large group painting a mural on the side of a building; it's evident in "Dirt," long and filled with dynamic turns. It’s true ensemble labor, vacillating between chills and powerful resolutions.
Like many forms, Bluegrass and folk are most understandable when there's harmony; Cabinet believes in the occasional pleasures of dissonance. Kopec's fiddle teasing the line between in and out of tune, taking maybe too much time getting a particular note up to pitch. "That bending. As much as we all want harmony, there are those moments of discord leading up to it that make it shine so much more when it gets there, you know?"
Additional photos: Vernon Webb; Jack Riley.