When a band takes the stage with a couple of guitars, a bass, and some drums, it's no big mystery why they're playing those instruments. If you're a young American, that setup is in your blood. Three chords and the truth is your birthright. But what if your hands hold a mandolin, a clarinet, and a cello, and you play guitar only as a complement to your main instrument, banjo? It leads to pretty obvious questions.
"Around eighth grade I saw Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on Austin City Limits," explains Spaghetti Western String Co.'s Michael Rossetto. "My mom called me from the other room: 'Hey Mike! There's some musicians on TV!'
"So I see this banjo player and I was like, 'Holy shit. This is unbelievable. Banjo!' Just watching the close-ups of how fluid he was on the fingerboard—'Wow, this looks like fun.' And for me, I had heard banjo: I knew Kermit the Frog, I knew Deliverance, I had the Steve Martin records—so I knew the banjo was cool, but I was a guitar player."
Hold up now. I've seen Deliverance, too, and I don't know if it makes banjo look cool. And I'm pretty sure Kermit the Frog wasn't bagging the chicks with his banjo skills—he had to settle for a pig. But Rossetto, who's led Spaghetti Western String Co. since 2003, doesn't seem like the kind of guy who's overly concerned with how cool his music is. "I was in a jam band in high school," he admits with a grin. "It's a dark part of my past. I used to play with my teeth, but I learned a lot about improvisation."
Spaghetti Western String Co.'s new album, Lull and Clatter, is about as far from a freewheeling jam record as you can imagine, stuffed to the brim with elegantly structured tunes that aren't nearly as creaky and traditionalist as the instrumental lineup might imply—and it's anything but lo-fi.
The core group members (Paul Fonfara on clarinet, Nick Lemme on mandolin and very occasional vocals, Ethan Sutton on cello, and Rossetto) are joined on the record by guests such as drummer J.T. Bates, Roma di Luna vocalist Channy Moon, and even a full choir on "Ellesmere Island." Their previous release, an EP titled The Quiet Mob, was modest and unassuming. The new record finds them expanding their palette while continuing to ground their sound in a compelling mixture of American and European folk traditions. What makes it so fresh is the way they take elements of tradition and blend them with progressive structures and arrangements.
Lull and Clatter never feels forced, but it also never coasts. The balance between texture and melody is impeccable. The band succumbs neither to the temptation to dirty things artificially nor to scrub them spotless. Minneapolis's Wild Sound Studio provided the environment, and from there, they kept it simple.
"You've got hollow pieces of wood and a huge range of tones you can get out of them," Rossetto continues before admitting, "I used to be a stompbox guy. I still have the pedals, but they're collecting dust in a drawer somewhere, waiting to be put on eBay."
Their release show at the Cedar Cultural Center will feature members of the choir that appeared on the record, but that's about as close to pyrotechnics and spectacle as they're likely to get. "What we have to offer is the music: melody, harmony, your basic elements. I think it's fun to watch people play. I love watching fingers," he says, coming back to what inspired him to pick up the banjo in the first place. "It's a great way to communicate."
SPAGHETTI WESTERN STRING CO. perform a CD-release party with Fat Kid Wednesdays on SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 9, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674
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