The gospel-influenced old-time string band Spirit Family Reunion is all about encouraging audience participation. Their energetic performances and debut album, No Separation, are filled with harmonies that seem to come from a more primitive, communal time.
“There’s a line [in ‘No Separation’] that says ‘I don’t need no invitation,’” explains washboard percussionist Stephen Weinheimer. “And no one needs an invitation to be part of what we do.”
The crowd at last summer’s Newport Folk Festival certainly joined in, and since that blazing-hot performance, interest in the New York City-based group has grown enormously. Fans have started to discover fetching original tunes like “100 Greenback Dollar Bills,” as well as the obscure praise-song covers that the band unearths in places like thrift-shop bargain bins.
“We don’t want to be revivalists,” he says. “We like a song, and we make it our own.”
Now Spirit Family Reunion is feverishly touring the country, screaming their “open-door gospel” from the top of their lungs and seemingly the distant past.
Recently Weinheimer called in to CMT.com and provided a little background on the young band. In the process, he may have revealed the secret of their haunting sound and also implicated the whole group in nearly killing Jackson Browne.
CMT: Growing up like you did in New York City, what drew you to those old sounds and wooden instruments?
Weinheimer: I think it honestly had to do with where we were playing at first. We were playing on the street, in train stations, in farmers markets. We needed stuff we didn’t have to plug in. And we also liked the idea of the bluegrass tradition where there’s one microphone and everyone plays around that.
There’s a definite gospel element in your songs. Were any of you active in the church growing up?
I think I am the only one. My dad was actually a Catholic priest, and he left the priesthood to marry my mom, so I went to church until I was probably 13 or 14. But we always like to say we’re not a part of any religion. The main reason we have a gospel influence is because we love gospel music.
Your bio says you strive to break the divide between performer and spectator. How do you try to accomplish that?
I guess there are a couple of ways, but I don’t know if they are conscious. We just smile and act goofy, and I think some musicians take themselves so seriously that they put that divide between them and the audience. I think that’s just terrible.
We also are really good at getting people to join us with singing. I mean, it’s about honesty, and that’s the thing, you know? I would say everybody else in the band is a pretty amazing musician, and I’m a freaking washboard player. (laughs) So it’s like I’ve found my place in the world and it’s with the washboard yelling on a stage. And people are like, “If that idiot can do it, I’m pretty sure we can sing along and connect.”
The band is a certainly a collective unit, but I think the harmony between Nick [Panken -- guitar], Maggie [Carson -- banjo] and Mat [Davidson -- fiddle] is central to your sound. What do you think makes them so special?
I think it’s because there’s a competition, and I don’t mean on a personal level. We used to only have one microphone, so actually it’s a competition between them all singing into one mic. And if they want to be heard, they’ve got to be loud. You can see they’re giving all they have into that, and that’s why it comes across so great. Plus, I don’t know many bands where the guy sings higher than the girl, but Nick sings in the middle and Maggie sings higher than him — but still lower than Mat. Mat sings higher than Maggie, which is pretty awesome.
Your performance at Newport Folk Festival over the summer really drew a lot of attention to your band. What do you remember about doing that show?
I think it was the first time we were nervous. I listened back to it, and we played every song so freaking fast. What I remember is we showed up about six minutes before we were supposed to play and almost hit Jackson Browne with the van on the way in. (laughs)
I was just like, “These people don’t know who we are, and I want them to know who we are when we’re done.” After the first song, I heard the crowd, and I’ve never heard a crowd sound like that for us before. So we kinda knew what we were bringing to the table, and we just pushed it harder and harder the entire set. It went by so fast.
Afterward, I think we were all emotional in our own way. But when Nick and I first started this thing, I don’t think we ever thought we would make it to Newport, so it was big. Especially for him, Newport was a big part of his life when he was a kid.
Do you all write songs as a group?
Nick mostly writes the songs, but honestly, they are not really songs until we are all a part of it. And we don’t really practice. We just play songs live until we get them how we want them. So we actually had our first practice two months ago, and it was great. It was really inspirational because we were all bringing ideas to the table, and Maggie and Mat write beautiful, beautiful songs on their own, so finally having everyone working together on stuff will be amazing.
So you literally have never rehearsed as a band?
Nope. We used to work at this bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and we asked different people we worked with to play with us. It was like three chords and a song, so it was like, “Whatever.” Finally, we got to a point where it was me, Mat, Maggie and Nick, and we kind of had this residency there. We played there every week, so we just built songs there. So we just now started building songs for real together and it’s been amazing. I think we’re going to keep doing it. (laughs)