Darlingside; Then and Now, Here and There
Dave Senft led Darlingside offstage at Universal Preservation Hall (UPH) in Saratoga Springs after their encore on November 3, likely the Massachusetts band’s last quartet show as Senft leaves the road.
Some 12 days later, a re-shaped Darlingside played a hometown show at the Parlor Room in Northampton – without Senft, but with two replacements and two guests.
Any band as beloved as Darlingside takes risks in changing people; nobody wants their favorite artists to change.
So, seeing this crew negotiate a significant shuffle confirmed its intelligence and durability as much as the sheer beauty of their linked voices and the zippy precision of its playing. They were friends first, then a band; friends they remain, so the band endures.
They had tipped us off in advance on its website in these words from Senft. As the player – at the same time – of kick-drum and electric bass, replacing him would take two new musicians.
Dave here, with some band tour news:
Starting this fall (October), I will be taking a break from live touring for a bit. This was a very difficult decision, but one that was made unanimously and with love by all four of us, after many long conversations about what is feasible and sustainable for each of us as individuals, and for the band as a whole—ie, what will ultimately serve the longevity of Darlingside.
Touring has always been the hardest part of the job for me, and while some aspects have gotten easier with time, being away from my family has only gotten harder. I love playing shows, and there is so much about touring that I’m going to miss, but for the time being I know this is the right move, most of all because it will free the rest of the guys to take many more opportunities we would have otherwise had to turn down—which hopefully means lots more shows for you to attend moving forward!
I’ll be stepping away from all live performances—including local ones—so that the other guys can focus on crafting a consistent new live experience, with special guests and new musical elements we’ve always wanted to try. I’m deeply appreciative of that work they’re doing and so excited to see what they put together. In the meantime, my other roles in the band aren’t changing; I will still be writing, arranging, singing, playing, recording, and designing, as well as constantly losing track of personal items (my favorite tour hobby)—but it will all be from home, for now.Dave Senft
As Laura DaPolito reported in these pages, Senft’s departure from touring hung a bittersweet mantle over the show in Saratoga Springs.
Read her insights, and see husband-photographer-Nippertown impresario Jim Gilbert’s photos, here. I’ll wait.
I would only add a few hind-sight notes here.
Opener Caitlin Canty played solo and projected an upbeat energy more active than Darlingside’s stand-and-deliver simplicity. They engaged in different ways, both effective; Canty charismatic and smiley, Darlingside studious, perfectionist.
Violinist/mandolin player Auyon Mukharji led the band intros, as usual. In previous shows, they cleverly organized these around some recent on-tour episode, subtly profiling the four personalities but also assembling a group portrait. The band is all about unity, in playing, in singing and in a linked persona. In Saratoga, Mukharji posited this function very differently: Everybody spoke about the departing Senft; the reflections offered individually but in a candid way that accumulated sentiment. A different, kaleidoscopic and touching sort of unity emerged.
They spoke of Senft’s thoughtful perfectionism and high standards, paying tribute for how working with him had shaped their personal and artistic lives.
The music beautifully affirmed these warm, admiring connections, but with some telling episodes. Several starred guitarist and banjoist Don Mitchell who looks enough like Senft to be his taller, similarly-mustachioed brother. Mitchell apologized after singing Senft’s part in one song. Clearly, re-shaping their harmonies is a work in progress. And he left the stage “to avoid screwing up” a new song, “Can’t Help.” Actually an old lyric they’d recently completed, it’s one of several they’re playing live after (or while) recording them for a new album.
Here, Senft responded to the praise his bandmates issued earlier, when he’d demurred. Explaining he hadn’t prepared anything to say, he was reassured when Mukharji had assured him, “You have five more songs.”
Now he thanked his bandmates for the opportunity to take a break from touring – “a huge gift.” He added, “I love you guys so much; you gave me my whole identity.”
The identity of the band would necessarily change after this show, which seemed to rock harder than previous Darlingside shows I’ve seen them play at The Egg in Albany, and certainly harder than their cozy chamber folk family fest at the Parlor Room in Northampton on November 15.
The venue is a facet in a Northampton music scene that the Boston Globe recently reported is evolving, and not just because of COVID.
In short, the Globe suggested, Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG), which operates the Calvin Theater and numerous clubs including its namesake venue, has reduced its activities as Signature Sounds and other newcomers expand. Signature Sounds presents the Green River and Back Porch festivals and runs venues in Northampton and neighboring towns including the Academy of Music, Hawks & Reed, the Shea Theater, Race Street and Black Birch Vineyard. Its smallest venue is the Parlor Room, a cozy brick rectangle near Smith College that houses Signature Sound HQ, its record company and performance space. Simple but welcoming, it proved perfect for a two-show (7 and 9 p.m.) Darlingside homecoming on November 15.
As impresario Jim Olsen said from its small stage, the Parlor Room is adopting a non-profit/membership business model. Shaped and sized roughly like Chickie Wah-Wah in New Orleans (but without a bar) and aspiring to the community network role Caffe Lena has built in Saratoga Springs, the Parlor Room lacks hospitality resources at present. Drinks and snacks are BYOB. So fans cracked cans of craft-brews as they filed into tight rows of folding chairs: ten to a row and lining one wall. Restrooms are at the rear, alongside the band catering area. The Darlingside musicians and their families dined there, unfazed by restroom traffic or friends dropping in to say Hey.
The place filled up gradually and with happy anticipation: a room maybe ten percent the side of the Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs where I’d seen them 12 days before, and all on one flat level, with no “rake” to floor or seats before a low stage.
Northampton pals Dennis and Mary Ann and their friend Steven and I sat in the fourth row; nearby sat the couple who were Darlingside’s first landlords when they formed in nearby Hadley after graduating from Williams College. The vibe was warm as a neighbors’ meet-up at the co-op, or a garage conversation about borrowing a snowblower.
As at UPH in Saratoga Springs, cellist-guitarist Harris Paseltiner emerged first to tune up and look around, collecting applause shyly and feeding the buzz among the crowd.
Beyond the happy hum of welcome, some questions simmered, unspoken. Who had joined the remaining, founding trio? How would it sound, and feel? What would remain of what everyone loved about the old Darlingside?
Imagine harmonies tight as the Beach Boys’ or Crosby Stills and Nash (but not Young…). Among new-ish harmony groups such as the Low Anthem, an ironic band name considering its falsetto sound, Darlingside sings better. Their playing projects a classical string quartet’s crispness even when evoking homespun folkie traditions or really rocking. They don’t improvise, as Mukharji proudly proclaimed at the Parlor Room; and their playing is detailed but not delicate, pretty but not precious.
Onstage, they look like the New England college guys they recently were; not frat-football bro’s, more like bohemian/Gen X echoes of Fagen and Becker at Bard. Smart as hell, they’ve burnished off any residual smug Steely Dan-style sarcasm. Sincere, imagistic, emotionally accessible, their songwriting may be their single most strongly regional trait – New England, though Mukharji hails from St. Louis. Imagine Emily Dickinson if she had ever gone clubbing, hung out at music school or maybe read Kafka or Vonnegut.
Over three full albums (plus one in the making) and several shorter projects, Darlingside has explored imaginative yet comfortable-sounding musical invention while projecting an onstage reserve that reads as charm. They’ve managed to reach audiences far past the dorm-rooms that might once have seemed their natural habitat. Their audiences at both UPH and the Parlor Room included teens, ‘tweens and younger kids with their parents, but also graybeards of grandparent vintage.
Everybody was delighted to greet them, in both places – in sweet farewell to Dave Senft at UPH and in welcome to what’s next at the Parlor Room.
After registering founders Paseltiner, violinist and mandolin player Auyon Mukharji and guitarist and banjo player Don Mitchell, we checked out the newbies. A thin, dark-haired woman behind a red Fender bass took her place between Mitchell and Mukharji, and a suspendered, bearded guy sat at a small drum kit.
And they were off.
Symmetrically, they started with “God of Loss,” their set-closer at UPH. Everything fit and flowed, but they projected a different kind of confidence from that earlier show. Here they seemed rehearsed, if a bit tentative at first. At UPH, their last-before-Senft’s-farewell show surged at times like a fire.
Another difference: at UPH, each member sang into a separate vocal microphone, but at the Parlor Room, they clustered around a single omnidirectional mic; as they had done in past tours and as purist bluegrass and country bands still do.
Singing into separate mics, the front-of-house (PA system) engineer can balance inputs from multiple voices at the mixing console; but singing together at one mic requires a more precise organic finesse. The new five-piece Darlingside clearly had this together already. The singers would ease closer to the mic or back slightly way, as the songs’ arrangements demanded. Nobody hesitated and nobody missed a cue.
A few songs in, they noted that they’d been the first-ever band to play the Parlor Room, ten years to the week before the Nov. 15th gig. (Onstage at UPH, they had used teenagers’ years to reckon time, musing over a saga that included concert postponements around COVID and Lyme disease, and – more happily – songwriting in a nearby cabin. But I digress.)
Soon, they introduced their new members: bassist Molly Parton and drummer and banjoist Brian Burns. Later, they would hedge their bets and blur new-line-up expectations by inviting guests onto an already over-crowded stage.
This all felt proudly local, as when they noted they’d played the Hadley Bread Festival, second-billed to a parade. But then they unleashed their own parade of driving violin riffs, in “White Horses.”
As usual, they swapped instruments some, with the waltz-time “Old Friends” sailing on locked-in strumming on two acoustic guitars. Burns stood behind his drums at times to play banjo, Mukharji briefly played mandolin late in the set; just as briefly, Paseltiner sat to play cello, and Mitchell took over the electric bass late after playing banjo and acoustic and electric guitars, the latter a 12-string..
The sound felt fuller than in quartet days, both vocally and instrumentally; although they scaled back to a trio of founders for “Get Back to the Heart Again,” Mitchell, Mukharji and Paseltiner each leading a verse.
Also as usual, band introductions orbited around a shared episode, in this case a harmless tour-van misadventure. Then, in “The Ancestor,” Paseltiner’s cello and Mukharji’s violin laced together in close riffing.
Singer Louisa Stancioff joined late in the set in “Green + Evergreen,” one of the natural history numbers from “Fish Pond Fish.” This rolled on a crisp beat over fleet drumming as its lyric noted things “change and change again.”
In a superficial sense, this line seemed to describe the whole show. However, although some arrangements had evolved, the music maintained its essential sophistication and warmth.
Stancioff took the first lead in the agile country lope of “Time Will Be,” Mitchell sculpting tasty, minimalistic banjo licks. Then Dan Kelly came aboard to contribute similarly understated electric guitar riffs to a new song for Darlingside’s album in progress. Appearing on the set-list as “Time,” its lyric looks back to when things were easier, when there was “time to burn.”
Kelly and his bassist brother Dave are Stancioff’s band; they’ll open for Darlingside on a future tour.
“Ocean Bed,” also from “Fish Pond Fish” (their newest and best album) closed the set; but the band barely left the stage before returning to encore with a thrilling run through “Best of the Best of Times.”
Lamenting that COVID kiboshed touring after they’d released “Fish Pond Fish,” or maybe because of this, they relied heavily on its often biology-focused tunes. These songs so effectively conjure the worlds they invite listeners into that they stretch time with wonder; like wandering watch-less in the Peabody at Yale or Harvard’s Museum of Natural History.
They played only about an hour at the Parlor Room, with a second show to follow for another audience. Some stayed for both. They’d played nearly 80 minutes at UPH in Saratoga Springs; but nobody complained about either quantity or quality as fans left into a blinding snow squall blanketing Northampton.
With a new album in the making, live shows that introduce them onstage and an effective new line-up, the five-member Darlingside had reason to smile as they left the Parlor Room stage.
And they did.
Extra, Extra – Read All About It
ABOUT THE PARLOR ROOM (from www.signaturesounds,com)
Q. What is it?
A. It’s Northampton’s artist- and-audience-friendly listening room/performance space. It’s also closely connected and run by the folks at Signature Sounds Recordings, one of the world’s premiere record labels for folk/roots/Americana/indie/rock, home to such artists as Chris Smither, Lake Street Dive, Caroline Herring, Winterpills, Josh Ritter, Amy Rigby, Erin Mckeown, Kris Delmhorst and many, many more…
Q. Where is it?
A: The Parlor Room is right in downtown Northampton at 32 Masonic Street, next door to the Woodstar Cafe. You can’t miss it; it looks like an old brick one-room schoolhouse, but, like a clown car, holds a lot more than it seems like it should. The record label offices are in the back, but the shows are out front (kind of like a reverse mullet! All business in the back, party out in the front).