Touted by Boston Globe critic Scott Alarik as "the most important folk group to emerge from Boston since the early '60s," Crooked Still plays traditional string band music with some unconventional twists. Its instrumentation cello, violin, double bass and banjo falls somewhere between chamber music and bluegrass.
Meanwhile, the group's extensive repertoire teems with traditional songs, from a more refined version of Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen" to "Captain, Captain," which seamlessly interpolates two relatively obscure Appalachian folk songs. All of which is pretty esoteric for a bunch of musicians whose average age was 20 when they got their start back in 2001.
"Boston's not really known for bluegrass, but there actually is a thriving scene of young people playing it," says Crooked Still co-founder Corey DiMario. "Every week, there's a Tuesday night open jam session at a place called the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, and it's great the quality of musicianship is very high, and that's where we got our start playing."
In DiMario's view, Crooked Still is, in essence, an American string band.
"What we're playing is typically string band music: blues and bluegrass and old-time Appalachian stuff. But certainly all of us have interest in other kinds of music. I mean, Aoife [O'Donovan, the group's vocalist], her dad is from West Cork, Ireland, and he hosts an Irish music radio show on the National Public Radio station in Boston. So all her life, she's known all these great Irish traditional musicians.
"And our new fiddle player has played Scottish music for all her life, in addition to old-time music and bluegrass. I'd never say that we play Scottish or Irish music, but those influences definitely creep in," DiMario says.
The band was, of course, thrilled to be singled out as Boston's most important folk group in decades, even if the accolade sometimes requires explanation.
"Boston was sort of the hub for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and all sorts of people in the folk revival of the '60s," says DiMario of the role more commonly associated with a certain New York neighborhood. "Greenwich Village definitely played a huge part afterward, but before that, all of those folks were playing in Harvard Square and Boston."
Dylan's "Oxford Town," as it happens, appears on the band's 2006 Shaken by a Low Sound, the album's title being a reference to the band's often bottom-heavy sound. As bassist, DiMario sees playing with a cello as one of his biggest challenges.
"Cello is a real interesting instrument, because it's relatively new in folk music," he says. "Our ranges overlap so much that we create a sort of thick, low sound together, often operating like one massive instrument."
The band's latest album, Still Crooked, includes a pair of original compositions, but primarily finds the Telluride and Newport Folk Festival veterans favoring traditional material.
"There's so many amazing songs out there, traditional songs that have been sung for so many generations," explains DiMario. "I think it's a very rewarding experience to mine them, to dig them up and reinvent them in a way that makes them still relevant today."