Nick Panken stepped up to the microphone with a smile. “Somebody just ‘Woo’ed’, so that means we have to start the concert,” he told the sell out crowd packed tightly at the front of the stage. With a quick count in, Spirit Family Renunion blasted into a lively set that had the entire audience dancing.
Cafe 9 was already crowded for the opening set from a local New Haven band, Elison Jackson. I had arrived right as the doors opened, and the venue was full well before Elison Jackson’s set. The waitresses that normally weave their way easily through the patrons struggled to make their way to the front of the venue. Elison Jackson played an hour long set of mid-tempo garage-folk songs. Think Bob Dylan and The Band as an acoustic set. While the lead guitarist picked out some strong solos and some great walking bass lines, the set felt repetitive and far too mellow. I wanted to get into the songs, but there’s only so much vocal bending I can take. While Bob Dylan was one of the first musicians I loved, I can only listen to him in small increments. The keyboardist was barely heard throughout the set, but when he did take a solo, it was a welcome change.
There was a marked change in the atmosphere as Spirit Family Reunion took the stage. Even as washboard player Stephen Weinheimer piled bottles of water on the stage, the crowd was buzzing. Guitarist Nick Panken slung his acoustic guitar on his shoulders while banjo player Maggie Carson adjusted her microphone and Weinheimer clicked his forks together as he stuffed the pegs of his washboard into his jean pockets. The audience catcalled for them to start and the band quickly obliged. Spirit Family Reunion’s energy remained high throughout the set, with aggressive playing and vocals from Panken and Carson. The audience clapped and danced, despite the densely packed venue. After photographing a few songs, I slithered my way to the back of Cafe 9, where it’s much more difficult to see the stage. I noticed other patrons were standing on stools to get a better view. Large groups of fans were swaying along to the music with their arms wrapped around each other. There was a boisterous sing along to When My Name is Spoken, which felt like a straight up revival, complete with shouts of, “Hallelujah!” from the crowd.
It’s always fun for me to photograph a band with that much passion and intensity. In the middle of two snow storms that pummeled the east coast, Spirit Family Reunion lit up New Haven for a night.
Spirit Family Reunion