The Ebony Hillbillies played at the Cistern Thursday night, and though fiddler Rique Prince compared the place to ancient Greece, the muggy air, live oaks, and Spanish moss provided the perfect Southern backdrop to this old timey string band. As Prince requested, the crowd did not hold the fact that they're from New York against them; the Hillbillies sounded like they were straight from the backwoods — even if they are most at home playing in the subway.
"You sure are sticky, Charleston," Prince said as they took the stage. And while locals shrugged off the humidity, it was probably to blame for some of the band's tuning issues, which persisted throughout the night — at times, it almost sounded like they were playing different songs.
In addition, the bass often drowned out the banjo and dulcimer. I'd like to think I was just sitting in a bad area, but I spoke to other attendees who noticed the same thing.
That said, the crowd did not seem disappointed by the performance. Prince led his bandmates through classic songs like "Old Carpenter's Waltz," "Bonaparte's Retreat," and "Shady Grove." "Altamont" highlighted Newman Baker's (aka Mr. Shotgun Fingers) significant skills with the washboard — he'd brought the shotgun shells with him on the plane. "Imagine what security thought of that," Prince laughed. While a few of the instrumentals seemed to blend together, the songs with lyrics stood out as the crowd clapped and sometimes sang along.
Prince, dressed all in white with long, salt-and-pepper braids, had an easy manner on stage, cracking jokes and talking about the history of string band music between songs. His fiddle playing ranged from fast and occasionally screechy to slow and sweet, his classical training evident. Filling out the band was Grammy-winning bassist Bill Salter, smiling throughout the show from beneath his bowler hat, and Norris Bennett, who sat front and center in a big cowboy hat, playing both the banjo and mountain dulcimer. Though quiet for the first half of the show, Bennett proved to have a big voice, and even chimed in with his own joke ("Do you know how long it takes to tune a violin? I don't know, it's never been done.")
Gloria Gassaway filled out the group, singing, playing bones, and providing comic relief. With her playful dancing and easy rapport with her bandmates and the audience, Gloria took the lead later in the show. Her shining moment (and one of our favorite parts of the night) was when she encouraged the audience to start a dance party around the stage ("Eliza Jane"), then sang the slightly raunchy "Big Fat Daddy." Apparently, people in Charleston are too skinny for her taste.
The sound and tuning issues persisted throughout the show, but it didn't seem to bother the audience — they were all beaming as they gave the band a standing ovation and begged one more song. Because really, this music isn't about perfection. It's about a feeling — and between the jokes and the down-home music, the Ebony Hillbillies gave us a good one.