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Spirit Family Reunion spreading folk-fashioned gospel

Nov. 03, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Toss on the washboard-scrubbing, banjo-shucking, fiddle-sawing tunes of the Spirit Family Reunion and you have no idea when or where this music is made.

It could well be a long-haired 1960s folk revival outfit from California or a current string band roaming the wilds of West Virginia.

Boldly based in the indie rock haven of Brooklyn, N.Y., the young Spirit Family Reunion has been making a joyful noise the freewheelin,' folk-fashioned way and spreading the gospel of good porch music from the Newport Folk Festival and tours with such acts as Trampled by Turtles to being called, "The Best of What's Next," by Paste Magazine.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, the band, which has been to West Virginia only once (a trip to the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, W.Va.) makes its Huntington and Mountain Stage debut playing a live show taping with Dr. Dog, Nellie McKay, The Mountain Goats and Red Wanting Blue.

Tickets to this Marshall Artists Series show are free for full-time students with Marshall I.D., part-time students can receive one ticket half-price. Regular tickets are $25 or $30.

Get tickets at the box office on the campus of Marshall University at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center, over the phone at 304-696-6656 or online at ticketmaster.com. The Keith box office will be open the day of show.

We caught up with lead singer and guitarist Nick Panken to find out more about the band, who's touring off its new CD and LP, "No Separation."

LAVENDER: Bands and music comes from anywhere these days so it's not surprising, but tell us how a string band rose from the streets of Brooklyn?

PANKEN: "Three of us (Panken, washboard player Stephen Weinheimer and banjoist Maggie Carson) met in high school and a few years after high school we were just bumming around the city and had moved back home after completing college by way of diploma or departure. I guess you could say self deportation, and yeah, we kind of got back in touch and started playing together and met the three other guys (fiddle player Mat Davidson, drummer Peter Pezzimenti, and bassist Ken Woodward) and we had a little band, an old-timey thing and they had more of a Dixieland Jazz band so we kind of combined the two."

LAVENDER: So tell us how you went from just playing around the city to playing all over the country.

PENKEN: "First of all it is a very mobile music. We don't need much, and so it was just a couple months before all of us were like 'lets go on tour and book some shows.' We didn't have room for amplifiers and big drum kits and all we are going to bring is our instruments, so it is simple. It is the travel friendly music, and it is the music I grew up listening to and the basis for so much music whether it is more rock 'n' roll or what not. We decided to go to the base and not progress too much from it."

LAVENDER: I really love the rugged simplicity of the songs. They could be from almost any era.

PENKEN: We started playing and still play a lot of places that are noisy and are not necessarily conducive to one guy up there playing a complicated and quiet song. We are in loud bars and on the street and this is the cut kind music that cuts right through anything. Think of 'This Little Light of Mine' everybody knows that song, it is universal, has a simple melody and a good message that doesn't only appeal to a small particular demographic. I feel comfortable playing this and giving our CDs to my aunts and uncles in the Bronx, or playing it for my friends in New Orleans or for all the folks on the farm in the hills of North Carolina. The songs don't need a lot of explanation ... I will never be embarrassed about being in this band. This music will never go out of style. Our songs will be forgotten one day but this style of music and the chord changes and the messages are all embedded into America. We are not a strict string band, and we're not an educational band, but it is a good way to swing people over to the traditional American music. It is one of the American traditions I am most fond of. It's good, accessible and you can do it recreationally and it won't kill ya."

LAVENDER: In just a short time (the band has been playing for four years and is now on its third touring van) you all have created quite a ruckus. (It was the last band to open for the late Levon Helm and got a big response at the 2012 New port Folk Festival in July). What's that response been like getting people so riled up at Newport and getting invited to do such things as NPR's Tiny Desk Concert and Mountain Stage.

PENKEN: When we started playing together and out so quickly we didn't have time to formulate the sound, and from the first shows I was surprised at people's reactions. Being around music my whole life, you usually get to go out and see your friends and you say something nice about their show whether you liked it or not. I was really surprised at the feedback saying 'hey you guys have something unique and it makes me feel good.' And it does feel good, so OK, we don't need to change anyone's total minds. If people feel good we are going to keep playing. People keep inviting us back and they'll say 'the next time you come to my college or town here's a place' and so we literally follow whatever, or whoever reaches out to us and says something that makes us feel like they get what we are all about."

If you go

WHAT: A live taping of Mountain Stage, a two-hour music radio show produced by WV Public Broadcasting and distributed worldwide by National Public Radio (NPR) and the Voice of America's satellite radio service

ON THE SHOW: Dr. Dog, Nellie McKay, The Mountain Goats, Spirit Family Reunion and Red Wanting Blue

WHERE: Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center, 925 4th Ave., Huntington

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4

HOW MUCH: Free for full-time students with Marshall I.D., part-time students can receive one ticket half-price. Public tickets $25 advance or $30 day of show.

GET TICKETS: At the box office on the campus of Marshall University at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center, by phone at 304-696-6656 or online at ticketmaster.com. The Keith box office will be open day of show.

POST SHOW JAM: The Carpenter Ants host a post Mountain Stage jam at the The V Club, 741 6th Ave., directly following the show. That concert will also feature AC30 and musicians from the Mountain Stage show are known to show up and sit in with the locals. Cover is $5.

ON THE WEB: www. mountainstage.org