By Mark Grabowski
Sometimes I like to keep things simple. In the modern sound-bite fast-forward world of today, where attention spans of more than 30 minutes (mine included) are rare, sometimes you gotta get back to the basics– especially in the increasingly synthetic world of music.
You can press a key now and get an exact copy of the sound the alien attackers made in 1979’s video game hit Galaga; press another and have a fairly accurate representation of the Russian National Orchestra. You now are expending a hundredth of a calorie on something that used to require one video game, a tape-recorder, and, during the Cold War, possibly an act of treason.
But has music really gotten better? Most people, including me, would say no: what’s been gained through “neat-o” digital tricks has been lost in soul.
Acoustic Syndicate, a band that mixes bluegrass sounds with straight-ahead 60/70’s style pop/rock melodies, does stick to the basics– banjo, drums, bass, and guitar provide a simple backdrop on which Steve McMurry lays his suprisingly catchy melodies. Blessed with a voice similar to Eric Clapton's (circa unplugged, rather than plugged, Layla), McMurry writes most of the group’s songs, as well as plays guitar. If he left, there would no longer be an Acoustic Syndicate.
But what set the group apart from their contemporaries are the bass and banjo additions– solo McMurry would just be a man with some better-than-average songs and a guitar. The weaving bass lines of Jay Sanders are more apt to remind one of Beach Boys bass luminary Brian Wilson (or at least the lines he wrote, as renowned studio musician Carol Kaye played most of his parts for recordings) than most groups that try to mix the old and new.
Bryon McMurry provides the banjo licks that are often a counterpoint to Steve’s rhythm guitar– the two are usually divided across the stereo spectrum on their newest release Crazy Little Life (2000), weaving in and out of each other like snakes in love. Drummer Fritz McMurry is no slouch either, always providing a steady beat. It's just that in roots-inspired music unlike commercial prog-rock (Yes), drumming is almost never the centerpiece. Some would say this is a good thing.
With simple but well constructed songs and an ear for the hook, Acoustic Syndicate's low-key bluegrass-influenced sound is sure to play well in the somewhat forward/backward-thinking burg that is Charlottesville. Tired of the modern world, and want to retreat to a 1920’s/1960’s dual time warp? Acoustic Syndicate might make your night.
Acoustic Syndicate performs at Starr Hill, July 27th. $10, 9:30pm.