LIVE: Darlingside @ The Egg Swyer Theatre, 10/29/2021

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ALBANY — For Boston string-and-sing band Darlingside, playing late (we hope!) in the pandemic means standing together again on a stage, so close you could cloak all four with a tablecloth.

Their music felt that close, too, in The Egg’s Swyer Theatre Friday night. Their talent on devices and voices could fill Yankee Stadium; the damn Yankees aren’t using it in this World Series anyway. But that small welcoming space felt just right for this most intimate, intelligent, sweet, silly, sonically sumptuous band.

They played most of “Birds Say” in an almost hour-long first set, celebrating, they said, the first anniversary of the fifth anniversary of this 2015 album. 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

The first lush rush of their linked voices hit like a slow soft wave in “The Ancestor.” As mandolinist-violinist-beginning-guitarist (more on that later) Auyon Mukharji noted after all four had spoken, they showed their sheer glee in being back onstage by all talking before their second song. 

In the show, as on the album, “White Horses” changed up the tempo more than the chords, drawing smiles as they sang of cider donuts, cited in their between song rap. They also questioned whether everything is real or a simulation and later mused whether everything, and not just the foods they discussed at length, were comprised solely of pizza, making a playful, persuasive case in a wise-ass grad seminar way.

In the dizzy Darlingside tautology, everything is everything, as they rummaged freely through musical materials they could have copped from a music school library. “Harrison Ford,” fast and staccato, felt cleverly episodic rather than random-choppy, offering lessons in counterpoint and the sly sounds of a plucked cello before surfing ashore on Beach Boys-like falsetto. The slower, folkier “Clay & Cast Iron” featured Leslie electric guitar and a pretty coda. “Go Back” also served up beautiful a cappella at both ends of a driving tune. When cellist-guitarist Harris Paseltiner’s intro wandered from cogent to less so, then stopped, acknowledging he’d wandered into the weeds, Mukharji protectively exclaimed, “That was awesome!” In its whack way, it was.

Embracing the engagingly strange, they adroitly stopped short of uncomfortably odd.

The jaunty jug-band-y “My Gal My Guy” played with syncopation under snappy lyrics on a New York City sojourn – “I put on my feet, walk out the door into a busy street.”

Photo by Jim Gilbert
Photo by Jim Gilbert

Darlingside’s sound sweetens the air with such hypnotic beauty that the words can all but evaporate. But the same articulate intelligence infuses both. All four voices fit at the baritone end of tenor range, a different sonic continent than, say, Howlin’ Wolf’s growl. But they sing real soulfulness in the quietest, most subtle way. They weave in almost endless variety: Beach Boys meet Amazing Blondel in a club where Manhattan Transfer and the Swingle Singers are having drinks, then stir things up good. 

Solos are scarce in playing as elegant as their singing: NewGrass zip, Bach-fugue stateliness, cozy coffeehouse clatter, even rock and roll energy like the lighter side of Wilco or The War on Drugs glide. Precise but never sterile, they swapped around like kids in a music store. Don Mitchell (stage right) played six- and 12-string electric guitars, banjo, acoustic guitar and keyboard elegantly. David Senft made soft electric bass throb over unobtrusive kick drum soft booms. Mukharji joked that playing easily portable violin and mandolin didn’t prepare him for how cumbersome guitars are, noting Senft’s (Rickenbacker) bass is heavy as 20 violins. Paseltiner’s cello and acoustic rhythm guitar glued things together. 

And, they’re funny as hell.

Introducing “Do You Ever Live,” Mukharji played guitar, admitting that, a self-taught beginner, he’d only try to play four notes – “five, if I make a mistake.” Nope, no mistakes, just a shifting blend of voices over complex riffing to an irresistible uplift.

Noting they’d framed band intros in McDonald’s lore in their last Egg show (2019), cellist-guitarist Harris Paseltiner said there’s something about the “giant concrete Egg” that conjures fast food visions before linking Friday’s intros to Taco Bell. Then they turned seriously pretty with “She’s All Around” and held this serene mood for “The God of Loss.” Then they masked up and left the stage to happy roars.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Back on after 20 minutes, they asked with arch but un-ironic solicitude if the crowd had enjoyed the intermission. Not as much as what was to come: a carefully curated swing through all three albums, as soothing and stimulating as the first set, but with intimations of mortality fighting it out with hope.

“Green + Evergreen” from 2020’s “Fish Pond Fish” took us to the forest as a metaphor for change and accepting it; then from the same album, “Whippoorwill” hit a similar note, craving togetherness in isolation. 

As COVID music goes, this is lively, lovely stuff, and the joy of playing and singing together again eclipses the stress of this time for these four young-ish men. But they’re also realists. Next “Time Will Be” looked at life’s unbreakable limits through a clear lens, with banjo solo. 

“Denver” mixed nostalgic geography with that same somber mood. The intro noted they are four individuals who don’t like standing far apart, so being together beats the gloom. They gave the dark its due, however, in “Heart Again” where, again, beauty barely beat desolation; as it also did in “Ocean Bed,” They sing of water as much as of the woods, though their next tune, “Orion,” starts in Santa Fe before observing “Beach is just a line in the sand” to trace the borders of a life over a fugue decorated with a lyrical violin break. They sang of love as bending the toll of time in “Old Friend” and “Best of the Best of Times” soothed some with “Everything’s fine” before concluding we’re far from the best of the best of times.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Tough stuff, maybe, but right for this second plague year. And they encored in the kind mercy of “Hold Your Head Up High” and its assurance “the new life thunders up and on.”

Darlingside thunders up and on.

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