“I said I had a baby…cuz…If I said we you might have thought the whole band was involved, and that would sound a little weird.”
To be honest, hearing that the all the members of The Ragbirds were involved in helping Erin Zindle and husband Randall (The Hitman) Moore produce a baby would not surprise me. (OK, put those naughty thoughts away, I was thinking in terms of helping support their efforts as expectant and new parents.) That’s how tight the band’s sound is. The sign of a great band (rather than just a group of great musicians) is that the sum is more than the total of the parts. The Ragbirds sound bigger, bolder and better than you would expect when you first see them assembling on stage.
The Ragbirds are fronted by Erin Zindle (lead vocals, violin, mandolin, accordion, melodica and percussion), with her brother T.J Zindle (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals) and newcomer Brennan Andes (bass, percussion) up front, with Randall Moore (congas, djemba, misc. percussion) and Loren Kranz (drum set) providing a dazzling variety of rhythmic backgrounds. I say dazzling because I’ve rarely heard a band put so many different styles of music together in such an effective way.
Come to think about it, “effective” sounds too clinical. “Kickass” fits better.
What kicks musical ass is that The Ragbirds basically defy any sort of simple categorization. The oft-used term “folk-rock world fusion band” just scratches the surface. During the concert I picked up on strains of a number of mainstream/popular American styles, along with Gypsy, Zydeco, Celtic, Latin, Italian, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, West African, Hindustani Ragas, Caribbean, to name a few. (I even heard a riff from a Sousa march, and an offhand tribute to Charlie Daniels). They don’t just play songs in these styles. They adapt and combine styles into original musical tapestries that bring about that “more than the sum of the parts” result I mentioned above.
For instance: Erin cheerfully invited people to dance to a tango, as she prepped her violin. While such a scene would elicit thoughts of Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli, it took about 30 seconds for my musical imagination to be led in a different direction. Imagine Grappelli on violin, but with Eric Clapton on guitar and Tito Puente on percussion. Tango for people who might consider themselves “too cool” for Ballroom dancing.
I especially enjoyed their version of “I’ll Fly Away”. The song was accompanied mostly by West African rhythm instruments, and the well-known gospel song’s chorus morphed with a West African traditional melody to give a delightfully fresh interpretation to the song. This was especially the case when they kicked up the tempo and cranked into a more complex rhythm. What is known to many people as a rather staid Americana Gospel Classic became a frantically danceable celebration of the whole idea of flying away to freedom.
All of The Ragbirds’ music is like that: it stretches boundaries and invites listeners to get up and dance to songs and styles they may not have considered dancing to before. It combines unexpected elements in a carefully crafted way that leads the listener on a lyrical journey of musical serendipity.
An example of that serendipity: when Erin picked up a melodica fo the song “Get In” I wondered if she was going to resort to some sort of cheesy ballad. The melodica is one of those instruments that finds a good home in grade school student bands, or summer camp singalongs, but you don’t see it much in contemporary music. About the only time I hear someone play melodica is because they can’t play harmonica. Erin made it work, as she traded rock riffs with brother T.J on his Gibson ES335. By that I mean rocking, Carlos Santana style riffs! At this point in the show, I wasn’t surprised at being surprised by Erin and the band’s musical inventiveness
Which brings up a special mention I want to make regarding T.J’s guitar work: it puts the capital “K” in the band’s “Kickass”. He borrows from a lot of influences (Clapton and Santana are just two) but infuses songs with riffs and rhythm lines in unexpected ways. He’ll toss in blues riffs during a Latin flavored dance tune, or Doc Watson flat picking lines during a zydeco style number. He swoops and darts about the stage in a furious pas de deux with his guitar that has the audience screaming for more after each solo. Yet, he never goes over the top to ruin a song. T.J. is electrifying and dynamic, but in an “understated” way. (Hey, you just gotta hear it, OK?)
The other members follow suit, as Randall manages to find ways to shake things up by trading poly-rhythms with Lorenz. If you think that using African/Caribbean rhythms behind a Celtic flavored, uptempo song won’t work, give a listen to “Tarantella”: it will convince you otherwise.
After an evening of surprising musical mixes, the last surprise was when Erin announced that the show was only the fourth time Brennan had appeared with the band on stage. He meshed so effortlessly with the band I assumed he was an original member.
Finally, it must be said how much of a driving force Erin Zindle actually is. She writes almost all their material. She is the catalyst behind what the other band members do, without drawing so much attention to herself that the other members end up seeming like they are just a back up band to her efforts. They are definitely a band, led by a multi-talented and musically gifted woman who is a big reason why the sum is greater than the parts.
Also, if you’re not careful, the danceable appeal of the music might lead you to overlook, or at least under-appreciate, how insightful many of Erin’s lyrics are. For instance, the lyrics of the very upbeat “Panoramic Camera” reveal the vision of someone who, as the song title evokes, wants to see the bigger picture, the wider vista, than the status quo invites.
A tribute to just how engaging The Ragbirds are is the loyalty and enthusiasm of “The Flock” (what they call their fans). Several people had traveled a considerable distance to hear the band. That’s impressive, given the weather we have been having this winter.
I guess I can consider myself part of The Flock now. I am hooked on just how cleverly the band mixes up musical styles, without it seeming either trite or pretentious. Frankly, I think they are having too much fun making their style of music to fall into either pitfall.
One last thing that earned a lot of respect from me (and I’m sure many others). The band is strongly committed to being “Green”. Their van runs on bio-diesel. As much as possible, they use recycled materials in their CD packaging, posters, etc. I greatly appreciate their commitment to sustainable living.