Spirit Family Reunion recalls the revival spirit of bands like The Carter Family and others, but with a secular presentation and a rowdy energy as reminiscent of a punk band than as a gospel band.
Band members include Nick Panken on vocals and acoustic guitar; Maggie Carson on vocals and five-string banjo; Stephen Weinheimer on vocals, bass drum, washboard and tambourine; Mat Davidson on fiddle and accordion; Ken Woodward on vocals and bass, and Peter Pezzimenti on vocals and drums.
The band has garnered a huge following, thanks to their energy and musical prowess, especially as witnessed through venues like “NPR Tiny Desk” and an appearance last year at the Newport Folk Festival.
Banjoist Carson began playing her instrument at the end of high school in New York City, at age 18, inspired by visits to her grandparents in Woods Hole.
“There was a pretty strong folk music scene out there when I was growing up,” she said. “Our neighbors had a hootenanny every year. That was my favorite day of the year, and there were always more banjo players than any guitarists or fiddlers or anything like that, so I wanted to make that day every day. Those were my role models, the people that played banjos over there.”
After high school, Carson was approached by two of her former school-mates, Panken and Weinheimer, who were looking for a banjo player for a band. At the same time, they recruited Davidson after catching his performance in Brooklyn.
“I think anybody who sees Mat play is drawn to him, so they asked him to come join us,” Carson said.
These were the core members of the first shows played as Spirit Family Reunion.
“There were all these other people there,” said Carson, “and musically, it was kind of like the changes were simple. We didn’t really practice, it was kind of sloppy, but there was definitely something good there. Every show there was a different line-up.”
Drummer Pezzimenti and bassist Woodward joined soon after, which upped the already noticeable energy of the band.
“Having bass and drums makes people want to dance, and really pushes the songs into a much more spirited place, a much more energetic place,” Carson said. “Pete and Ken bring their influences and passions. It’s so much fun to watch both of them play. It’s inspiring. I look at them play and I feel electricity.”
Rhythm is a huge component in the band’s fury, and Carson points to spoons and washboard player Weinheimer as being a real driving force in that realm.
“Stephen played in punk bands in high school, and I think he would say that’s his musical training,” she said. “It’s funny, when we were in the studio, we had a mic on him, and we would go into the control room and turn off everybody else and just listen to what he was doing, and it was insane just being able to hear him. It was so fun. And the lack of patterns, I don’t know if you could learn that from a teacher.”
The band’s early days were also filled with busking performances in subways and farmers markets that leant them a scrappy spontaneity, as well as access to and connection with crowds, thanks to their acoustic instruments, which freed them to play anywhere they wanted, at anytime.
“It’s so much fun playing and living in the city,” said Carson. “When we started out and didn’t have a van yet, it was just as simple as not having to travel around in our car with our instruments. We could make music anywhere, whether or not you have electricity.”
“It’s amazing to see all the different kinds of people that are drawn to it, that will stand and listen and give you a dollar or something, which is another wonderful thing about playing music in the city or doing anything in the city. I think it’s just trying to be as honest as you can with what you’re doing, and if you get to that place with people, it will touch them also.”
The band is looking strictly forward, formulating songs for a future record and continuing to perform in their own gospel-style party format. It’s important to them to bring the same raucous feelings that you could find in a spiritual revival meeting, while still keeping it non-specific and inclusive, a communion of people through sound.
“That’s pretty much what we try to do, part of it, or at least something that happens in doing what we do,” Carson said. “I never went to any church or synagogue, or any kind of religious place, on any kind of regular basis, but it’s the feeling I would imagine from what I have seen.”
“I think music is spiritual. I think being able to connect with people when you play, or you connect with them when they’re listening or dancing, there’s that connection and something profound and joyful and spiritual about it. It’s not about one deity for me.”
And that connection between band and audience usually results in the kind of intimacy that creates a rollicking scene, more often than not.
“The set that we’ll play does depend on the feeling in the room and the feeling that the audience is giving back, and it’s often a party,” Carson said.