There are tough rooms to play around the globe, and the horror stories from bands that played them are badges of honor for all the world to see. But it’s hard to imagine a tougher room than the New York City subway stations Spirit Family Reunion made their bones in.
“It’s a challenge,” says guitarist Nick Panken, almost matter-of-factly. “Bands always talk about how they came up playing five sets a night at this bar or playing these social dances or whatever and trying to learn all the material and command that attention to keep the party going. I think playing the subways is another version of that. It’s like signing up for a challenge.”
If so, it’s one that the Brooklyn-based band conquered, with the evidence of that success being two compelling albums, 2012’s No Separation and 2015’s Hands Together, high energy live shows, and the willingness to take that show on the road tirelessly to whoever wants to hear them. On Thursday and Friday they get a pair of home games as they headline their own Harvest Festival at Union Pool with several other artists, face painting, tarot readings and popcorn all part of the fun. But it doesn’t matter where they play, as this group is always going to bring it.
“We always want to keep people engaged, that’s for sure,” Panken said. “I think there’s a lot of songs that we have that don’t necessarily lend themselves to an exciting live performance. And we’ve played shows where people are seated and more interested in listening to the music that we’re playing and appreciating it in a very mellow kind of way. But I always prefer to play exciting shows where people are standing and dancing.”
And whether they’re ripping through a fast bluegrass number or slowing it down for some intense bluesy lament, you can feel the energy from a band that realizes that performance and having a connection with a crowd are paramount for any live act.
“I guess part of it is youthful energy,” he laughs, “and when we first started playing, we were playing a lot of faster songs and trying to bring as much energy as we possibly could. But over the years, we definitely have tried to maintain that kind of energy but not always necessarily be playing the same kind of fast songs with the same rhythm.”
So how does SFR get hatched in Brooklyn with a sound that would be more likely to be found anywhere but here?
“New York is so huge and there’s everything here. You can get every kind of food in New York, so why can’t you get every kind of music?” Panken asks, and he’s right. But this isn’t exactly the home of bluegrass or country or any hybrid of those styles.
“If you want to go play music on the streets or play in a kind of informal setting, you don’t have that many different options to choose from, and New York City has one of the stronger legacies when it comes to a similar kind of music, and it was the hub for it in the 60s. So there’s a lot of history here in New York.”
The folk influence is undoubtedly there, making SFR hard to pigeon-hole, and that’s a good thing. So who do they sound like? They sound like themselves, which always does make for interesting conversations when they do take their show down South.
“We play all different kinds of shows around the country, all different kinds of festivals, and I’ve personally never experienced somebody calling us a cheap imitation or anything like that,’ he said. “Nobody ever rejects us like that. If you don’t like our music, that’s fine, but people from the North tend to think that we’re from the South, and when we’re in the South, I think people appreciate our music and they really like it, and I think they also have a pretty solid understanding that we’re not from the South.”
No, they’re Brooklyn through and through, and the borough should be happy to have them.
Why? Well, because they’re good. And as Panken puts it, “We’re very much not a traditional band.”
The Spirit Family Reunion plays the Harvest Festival at Union Pool in Brooklyn on September 24 and 25. For tickets, click here