When Manic Productions announced the booking of Spirit Family Reunion at Cafe Nine, Connecticut’s alt-folk population rejoiced. The alt-folk folks turned out in droves to the intimate venue selling out the show. Amongst men with beards as long as their hair and women dressed like hippies, I found myself, sweating next to a stage no bigger than the venue’s bathroom. When the first band of the night, Goodnight Blue Moon, took the stage, the audience all seemed curious as to how the band would fit. Between a stand up bass player, a cellist, a mandolin player, a trumpet player, a guitarist, and a drummer, there was as much elbow room on stage as there was in the crowd. Luckily their violin player was sidelined by pregnancy, otherwise she would’ve been forced to play from the crowd.
The band has made their name as Connecticut’s lead purveyor of alt-folk. They obtained some national attention when the couple at the heart of the band, Nancy and Erik Elligers, were on HGTV’s House Hunters while looking for a home in New Haven. On stage, the couple did not play up the loveable dynamic they displayed on basic cable reality TV. Nancy, on cello, was positioned stage right with trumpeteer, Sean Elligers positioned between she and Erik. Erik handled guitar and shared lead vocal duties with mandolin player, Mathew Crowley who was to his left. I stress lead vocal duties because with these alt-folk bands, everybody sings.
But Goodnight Blue Moon is not your typical alt-folk fare. While their peers may ape Mumford and Sons or The Lumineers, Goodnight Blue Moon plays an inspired mixture of music that ranges from sea shanties to boroque pop. After the lively set opener “Hollow,” the band settled down into a love song done in a waltz style. After a few more alt-folk numbers, the band played “Baby,” a track with a classic R&B feel before ending with a shuffling mid-tempo alt-folk track.
The set kept the audience engaged, the same could not be said for the next performer Christopher Paul Stelling. As a solo acoustic musician, Stelling had a little more to overcome as more people squeezed into the bar. Stelling’s stage performance was extremely engage for those in eye shot. He makes deadly eye contact with the audience. His finger picking is entrancing. His voice strains with the emotion of Bruce Springsteen while singing songs more similar to Pete Seeger. Unfortunately for those not in eye shot, I’m afraid much was missed of Christopher Paul Stelling’s performance. By the time he hit some mid-set ballads, the crowd noise was almost overwhelming. Stelling, the consummate professional, never broke his act. As the set wound down, Stelling attempted to look in every eye pointed his way and thank it for listening.
With most of the crowd sweating even though not moving, the night’s headliners, Spirit Family Reunion hit the stage. Of all the men in the crowd on that night, Spirit Family Reunion’s members looked like the one’s least likely to be in a alt-folk band (save for the fiddle player). Most members came to the stage in hoodies, most clean shaven, and all clad in jeans. But the band proved that you should not judge a book by its cover, as the group ripped through a set of lively alt-folk and country numbers that had members of the crowd clapping their hands and stomping their feet.
Most impressive to me was Maggie Carson. As the only female in the band, she stood out not only for her sex but for her amazing banjo playing. While plucking a mean banjo, she still managed to be the high end of every harmony. It was a virtuosic performance.