Underbelly's fierce folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 9, 2003) – The Northampton-based string-band trio Underbelly has only been together a short time, but already the group has super written all over it.

Adding up the parts alone would get you a hefty sum, as the preternaturally young and talented singers and musicians of Underbelly have packed plenty of training and experience into their early years. But when joining forces, as heard at Club Helsinki on Sunday night, the members of Underbelly are a fierce unit, protecting each other’s musical flanks and propelling themselves along with rhythmic and harmonious inspiration.

When it came to playing folk music, in the largest sense of the term, there seemed little that Underbelly couldn’t do and do well. They leapt with nimble ease from old-time Appalachian fiddle tunes to contemporary topical songs, from Southern delta blues to Gypsy fiddling. They tied it all together with a freewheeling spirit, a brash confidence and an inerrant sense of rhythmic sense that belied their jazz training and familiarity with funk without ever violating the music’s fundamental authenticity.

The group kicked off with a fiddle tune played by Alicia Jo Rabins, a founding member of cutting-edge folk group the Mammals and a veritable walking encyclopedia of ethnic fiddle styles. Multi-instrumentalist Peter Siegel added deft, funky banjo riffs below Rabins, while Michael Daves provided the harmonic bed on guitar.

Daves was born and bred to play this music, having grown up in a family of old-time musicians in Georgia, and he was dazzling in versatility on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and vocals. He sang the old-time country song “June Apple” with a high, lonesome twang, and the delta blues “Sittin’ on Top of the World” with a deep, resonant drawl.

Siegel’s specialty is updating old-time music for the 21st century with a political twist. He sang about the excesses of consumerism accompanying himself on five-string banjo, and the joys of composting his own excrement on acoustic guitar.

Rabins described the group’s original compositions as “pseudo old-time music,” but on pieces like her own “Sugar Shack” you’d be hard put to tell the difference. She also connected the music of the American south to that of Eastern Europe, rendering the Yiddish theater tune, “Di Grine Kuzine” with Gypsy flair – echoed by Daves on some very Andy Statman-esque mandolin – and on a poignant, solo klezmer tune stamped with her own, unique kvetches. She was also a compelling singer, delivering a haunting “Long Black Veil” in smooth, rounded microtones with Siegel and Daves provided piercing close harmonies.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 10, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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