Spoleto 2017 » Jazz, Blues, & Roots

Della Mae slow cooks to a memorable finish

Sass and grass

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When the lights cut out near the end of Della Mae's performance at Cistern, the crowd wondered if it was part of the show. It was, although it wasn't intentional. "Wait, we still have power," we heard from stage. Immediately, the band gathered around a single mic, completely in the dark, and lit into a high-energy fiddle tune. The crowd clapped along in excitement, while fans in the front row held up their phones to cast light on the band. The audio/visual crew soon found a powerful flashlight to illuminate the stage, before the lights cut back on just as the song reached its rousing finale.

Singer Celia Woodsmith thanked whoever "tripped on an extension cord," adding, "That was the most epic fiddle tune we've ever done."

That moment led into their closing number, the Rolling Stones "No Expectations," before returning to stage to encore Dolly Parton's "9 to 5." Those final numbers of their 21-song set aptly gave reason to forget the first few. Spoleto was the group's first performance in months — and only one of a few since taking an indefinite hiatus in September 2016 — and the band's rustiness showed at the onset. That was heightened by minor technical issues — Woodsmith's vocals were loud and jarring on the opening song, "Empire," and the early solos from guitarist Courtney Hartman needed extra volume and attention from the soundboard.

By the fifth song, however, the band returned to one of their earliest tunes, "Jamie Dear," and found their groove. From here on, they seemed more comfortable on stage, technical issues smoothed out and the vibe became relaxed and fun. On "Rude Awakening," an audience member seated behind me was inspired to clap along, adding syncopated second beats. Impressed, I turned my head to identify the source. The takeaway? You're always allowed to clap along all by yourself, if you're Quentin Baxter.

In recent interviews, Della Mae has asked to be judged as a band, and not as an "all-female" band. But when fiddle player Kimber Ludiker founded the group in 2009, gender was a qualifying factor. And while it's not fair to mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner (or nearly any mandolin player) to close your eyes and compare her to Chris Thile or David Grisman, or to hold Hartman's solos up to Tony Rice or Bryan Sutton (whose "Runaway" they covered mid-set), as a recipient of a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album, that's the company they keep.

Fortunately, as the night progressed, each member of Della Mae demonstrated extreme proficiency in their instrument. Ludiker in particular is a world-class fiddle player. This isn't a strum-and-sing-along girls group, but they're also not going to leave jaws on the floor with individual instrumental prowess like former Spoleto counterparts Punch Brothers or Joy Kills Sorrow.

The answer is to listen to Della Mae as a cohesive unit. It's truly a band whose strength lies in the sum of their parts. Nobody in the band would win a TV singing competition, but when Hartman harmonizes with Woodsmith on "For the Sake of My Heart," it's a transcending amalgam of sound; a soaring moment of musical bliss. When Della Mae is locked in and firing — and feeling, perhaps in a way that's far easier for a band made up solely of women — they're unstoppable.

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