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Band On The Rise: The Crow & The Canyon

“I’d rather hang myself with a banjo string than see another string band.”

This was my thought as I darkened the door of Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge about two weeks ago, preparing to cover a band I’d never heard, The Crow & The Canyon. Obviously, my frame of mind was rather dark. I had three editors from two websites and a magazine breathing down my neck about deadlines so intensely I could tell what they had for lunch. I had an inbox overflowing with assignments I should have gotten to in August. The infamous Portland rains had recently arrived, blanketing the city in a seven-month fog so dense it could make Elliot Smith weep (and probably did at some point). Fucking Mumford & Sons still existed. As I said: my frame of mind was dark.

Well Ladies and gentleman, let me testify that I have rarely been so happy to be so damn wrong in my life, as The Crow & The Canyon restored my faith in string bands.

As you can maybe tell from that introductory paragraph, I can, at times, be a little cynical about things, especially musical trends. And very few popular music trends in the past few years have rankled my peaceful mindset more than the Sensitive String Band Wearing Suspenders Playing A Weak Version Of Old Timey Music. It’s not the stringed genre as a whole at all; it’s the ubiquity of utterly vanilla bands like the aforementioned Mumford & Sons and their ilk. They. Are. Everywhere. The backlash has been so severe in some music circles that I wouldn’t be surprised if that asshole Mumford is the reason Robin Peckinfold is hiding out, bumming around Columbia University, singing for coeds in the quad instead of recording the next excellent Fleet Foxes record*.

*I have no proof of this, but will treat it as fact until further evidence presents itself.

There is positively zero vanilla coming from The Crow & The Canyon’s stage. By the time they started their second number, also titled “The Crow & The Canyon”, I was pretty transfixed. All of the signifiers of a fantastic night of pickin’ were there: sad songs, drinking songs, dancing songs and of course: heartbreak songs. Austin Quattlebaum, Ben Larsen and Leigh Jones are all accomplished vocalists and players in their own right, but when on stage together they meld into something transfixing. The group went from rowdy, old school drinking numbers where they traded lines and harmonized wonderfully, to slower numbers were Jones played siren to every wistful (wishful?) single fella in the audience.

Only adding to my surprise at how effortlessly engaging the set was was the fact that bassist Miles Berry was unable to make the show and was being filled in for (quite ably) by John Shaw. As a surprise, the band also brought out expert fiddler Allie Kral of Yonder Mountain String Band for the entirety of the set, and sweet fancy Moses y’all: that girl can play, and she fit in seamlessly with the group.

The room was nearly full as well, something that is pretty amazing considering it was a Monday and the band performing doesn’t even have a record out yet. What was very interesting to me as well was the diversity of the crowd. The first two rows were longhairs smoking jazz cigarettes and dancing like Jerry Garcia had just been reanimated for a bluegrass jam, while in the middle and back of the room there were more of your “indie” types, staring at the band intently while tapping their feet (they were also smoking jazz cigarettes). Such a mix is unfortunately rare outside of music festivals, and it’s always cool to see “different” crowds mix at a show.

The Crow & The Canyon are a band with a future. They have a good look, they’re affable and easy-going on stage and the most important thing, (obviously) they sound tremendous. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly made the band’s sound stand out for me from other bands of their ilk until I did some research on the group’s diverse background.

Featuring a Portland music scene vet in Ben Larsen, an Appalachia-via-Savannah, GA Southerner in Austin Quattlebaum, a bassist who cut his teeth in Santa Cruz’s funk scene in Miles Berry and Leigh Jones, an NYU-educated ukulele player, The Crow & The Canyon’s lineup is quite a bit more diverse than most. It’s also a very Portland lineup, as part of what makes this wonderful city so amazing is the fact that it serves as a beacon for creative types to come together in an environment conducive to producing art. I can’t help but postulate that such a varied background has something to do with the “it” that TC&TC have in spades.

The show we caught at the Doug Fir was the band’s last for a few months, as the members are taking some time off to travel and focus on other projects before hitting the studio in January to record their debut album. Quattlebaum told me the record will be recorded at Portland’s Cloud City Studios and will feature quite a few “special guests and local heroes”, and that the band is hoping for a March release, which will be followed by a Spring tour.

Believe me when I tell you folks, this will be a record and band to watch out for in 2014. The Crow & The Canyon have found their way onto my radar, and they should be on yours as well.

Now if we can just get rid of that Mumford fellow…

Keep your eyes peeled on The Crow & The Canyon’s website for info on their debut as well as updated tour dates, and do yourself a favor and dig their wonderful cover of George Jone’s “She Thinks I Still Care” below: