Wayfaring Strangers play hit and miss set in Spaulding

by David Archwamety | 11/17/03 6:00am

Described by jazz critics as a "bluegrass band" and by bluegrass critics as a "jazz band," The Wayfaring Strangers is neither. Led by Matt Glaser on fiddle, the nine members of The Wayfaring Strangers brought good old-fashioned folk music to Spaulding Auditorium. The supergroup, composed of Berklee College of Music professors and other expert musical craftsmen, played new, unrecorded material as well as selections from their previous two albums on Cambridge, Mass.-based Rounder Records.

With nine band members and six instruments, space on the stage was tight -- but The Wayfaring Strangers maintained appropriate focus. There were solo performances within many of the songs, and during these times the rest of the band became audience members as they turned and looked at the solo player. As soon as the solo was finished, the nine-member band immediately came to life and folk music once again filled the auditorium. However, when the entire band was in full swing the light focused on the vocalists, though any other member could arguably have been the main focus.

The Wayfaring Strangers were at their best when doing folk, and that's precisely what the first set was. "When You Go Walking After Midnight," aided by night-sky lighting on the curtain, features the three female vocalists at their best, and a beautiful piano solo from Laszlo Gardony.

Although the vocalists have markedly different voices, when singing in unison they are indistinguishable. During the first half of the song, there were different parts, but it was impossible to separate the soloist from the other singers. This changed during the second half, when the audience was treated to solos from each vocalist.

In "John Henry," Ruth Ungar stretched her range's limits and proved to be a most impressive yodeler.

From then on, the voices become easier to pick out. In "Shifting Sands of Time," each vocalist entered at a separate time, making the voices easier to follow as the song continues.

These days, it seems every band is trying to construct their own genre but only few can pull it off. Sadly, The Wayfaring Strangers weren't an exception -- during the second set, they threw in the occasional influence that didn't fit into their folk-based music. "Shifting Sands of Time" began as a warm, atmospheric folk ballad but then an Arabic influence made its way into the song and the result was two different songs being played at the same time.

One non-folk style they succeeded at was jazz -- the cynical "Steal Away and Die" was not jazz-influenced folk, but jazz. It fits into their program, but competent as it was, it was not at the same level as their straight-up folk pieces. After that, Glaser's lighthearted approach to music shown as the band went from what he called "the sublime to the truly ridiculous" in a piece with Jack Prelutsky-like lyrics. Soon enough, they went back to the "sublime" just in time for the last few pieces.

The concert ended on a high note with the song that they took their name from, "Wayfaring Stranger." It began as a mandolin-driven piece which quickly turned into the type of folk piece that the band does best.

In a post-performance discussion, Glaser described the band's part-time status as a "defining characteristic." Both Glaser and Gardony are faculty of music at Berklee, and several of The Wayfaring Strangers are members of another band.

This worked both to their advantage and to their disadvantage. It allowed the sound to be more raw and straightforward, but along with the sincerity, the lack of a cohesive rehearsal shows. That's not to say that each member isn't talented in his or her own right. Glaser noted that he likes to stand back and watch the rest of the band sing and play, and that's not surprising given how impressive the solo parts are.

Glaser also joked that Spaulding Auditorium was a refreshing change of venue. "We're used to raging incompetents wherever we go," he said with a laugh.

If the concert was any indicator, he wasn't referring to the musicians with whom he shared the stage.

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