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Music » Sound Stories & Interviews

Banjo, Plus

Plucking around Supermule

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Diversifying appears to be a trend that the Bay Area bluegrass scene has embraced. Take for example the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. Founded in 2001 by the late Warren Hellman, a banjo-loving billionaire, the free festival has expanded beyond strictly picking and, in recent years, grown to include distinctly non-bluegrass bands including Ryan Adams, Yo La Tango and Built To Spill. This year's lineup even boasts Social Distortion.

This trend is confirmed by the Bay Area born Supermule, a seven-piece band of diverse players that are anything but strictly bluegrass. Proof that they're a non-traditional bunch is a funky, string-filled cover of Bill Withers' "Use Me" on their new EP Northern White Clouds.

"What's special about everyone in this group is that we all like to play a lot of different kinds of music," explained banjo player Jim Chayka. "The whole hybrid thing with this group really got started when Rich (Armstrong, multi-instrumentalist best known for his bluesy trumpet/flugelhorn and trombone playing) and I got together to experiment with some banjo and trumpet jams, and we really liked how the paring sounded. It's great to have bluegrass as our common denominator, but it's also great to work with a group of players who can bring a lot of different vibes to something like a two or three-chord traditional song."

With an inclination toward chugging train percussion and jazzy vocal melodies matched with skillful string and horn leads, the band has found a way to take turns showcasing the sheer talent of each of its members in unorthodox arrangements of covers and crafting their own original hoedown creations.

"There is a lot of versatility in each of us, but I think each person's artistic wellspring draws from slightly different genres," said Chayka. "Alisa Rose, for example, is a badass fiddle player but also has a background in classical music and a degree from the SF Conservatory of Music—as well as a Grammy nomination for her classical contemporary work with Quartet San Francisco. Mike Emerson, our keys player, is also an incredible musician who spent years shedding the work of Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, and lots of other jazz and R&B greats, but he also spends time touring with Carlene Carter and so really gets Americana and how to channel his bedrock influences to work within traditional music. I could gush about everyone else too, but we're a seven-piece band so I'll stop there."

Supermule

9 pm. Fri., Sept. 5

Volcanic Theatre Pub, 70 SW Century Dr.

$5.

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