Acoustic Syndicate at Club Helsinki
by Seth Rogovoy

GREAT BARRINGTON – It’s hard to say if Acoustic Syndicate is a rock band that plays bluegrass or a bluegrass band in rock ‘n’ roll overdrive. The quartet, which performed at Club Helsinki on Thursday night, veered from one extreme to the other, and covered a lot of ground in between.

But in the end it didn’t really matter what you called it. Rock and bluegrass are closely related. If not quite siblings, then perhaps bluegrass is rock’s favorite uncle. Mixing bluegrass and rock has a long and illustrious pedigree, beginning at least as far back as Elvis Presley and running through the Grateful Dead and Phish, and now through a host of bluegrass-based, improvisational-minded groove-rock bands of the sort that are popping up with greater frequency at local club shows and festivals.

What the North Carolina-based quartet, Acoustic Syndicate, brought to the table was impeccable virtuosity, high lonesome harmonies and an eclectic palette from which to draw. The group consists of brothers Bryon and Fitz McMurry on banjo and drums respectively, cousin Steve McMurry on acoustic guitar, and Jay Sanders on acoustic bass.

All the McMurrys sing, and they traded lead vocals, phrases and harmonies with an ease and effortlessness that recalled The Band.

The group kicked off the evening with the John Hartford favorite, “Turn Your Radio On,” invested with deep, country-gospel twang. Bryon McMurry’s banjo was a bed for Steve’s David Hidalgo-like vocals on “Crazy Town,” an original roots-rocker. “Billy the Kid” was a tribute to the legendary outlaw featuring yearning harmonies that twisted and turned long, single notes. Another soft tune invoked Mister Rogers as an influence, with lyrics like “Won’t you be my neighbor” and “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” which were delivered seemingly without irony.

Indulging its more experimental side, the group launched into an open-ended instrumental tune, with Bryon soloing over a rock groove before the band kicked in double-time in a bluegrass-rock version of the Dire Straits’ chestnut “Water of Love,” which before concluding with a banjo breakdown took a detour into a reggae rhythm.

Another innovative tune began as a slow, minor-key jam, a little bit spacey, a little bit Middle Eastern, before getting funky and then jazzy, with an authentic swing section where the bass took a solo and Fitz brushed the cymbals. The group was more at ease with reggae, and the song morphed back in that direction before segueing into a song with appropriate neo-hippie sentiments that asked “If a rainbow was a roller coaster … would you go upside down with me?”

The group returned to some more straight-ahead bluegrass – as straight-ahead as you can get in bluegrass with a drummer, that is – on “Footprints in the Snow” and “Rebecca” before a version of Del McCoury’s “Cheek to Cheek with the Blues.” A groove-rock ballad of the sort Acoustic Junction used to play followed, and the group closed out its first lengthy set with a version of Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” with a long instrumental lead-in that quoted the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”

If that sounds like a lot of musical referencing from all over the map, it was, but for better or worse, Acoustic Syndicate made it all seamless and part of its good-natured, gentle, organic aesthetic. The players’ virtuosity threatened to overwhelm their larger purpose, or perhaps it was that their purpose hasn’t yet been defined. In the meantime, they jam.

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