Eastman String Band at Gettysburg

Whenever the Eastman String Band plays at a festival, there are a few things you can depend on – Savannah Finch’s silky vocals, Tim Finch’s wacky humor and some hot picking. Beyond that, though, you never know what, or who, to expect on stage.

Sunday’s show at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival was no exception. The band lives firmly in the alt-grass/new grass neighborhood, giving festival goers a dash of what they expect, along with a heaping serving of something else — sometimes all in one song.

That’s what happened in back-to-back songs during an hour-long set. First, the band launched into the old standby, Nine Pound Hammer. But after Tim’s vocal kickoff, the band quickly veered away from tradition. First, band regular John Miller and special guest Danny Knicely traded wicked guitar breaks. Then Demetrios Kakavas added a drum solo (!) before Nate Leath’s fine fiddling brought the song back home.

Any thoughts that the testing-the-envelope stuff was over were quickly put to rest when Savannah introduced the next song, Leaves Have Flown, as one in which “the hills of Appalachia meet the Isle of Crete, Greece.” What she originally envisioned as a conventional Old-Time song was transformed when Demetrios heard it and added a syncopated Greek rhythm called sirto. (Now there’s a word you don’t see every day on The Bluegrass Blog!). The song is one of the best on the CD, Tim and Savannah Finch with The Eastman String Band, but it has an even bigger kick performed live.

The drums fit this music perfectly, in part because Demetrios knows when to lay back and when to dig in, complementing the strong picking, not competing with it.

The Eastman Strings Co., for which Tim works as a rep, is a loyal member of the bluegrass community, donating instruments for fund-raising raffles and sponsoring events, such as the Kids Academy at the Gettysburg festival. So what if the band’s drums rattle the that-ain’t-bluegrass purists. Remember that Bill Monroe experimented with non-bluegrass instruments and now Doyle Lawson, who was also on the Gettysburg bill, is playing with a drummer.

It’s still great music. Those who wandered away from their chairs after Sunday’s set by the Seldom Scene, another band that offended many purists for being too folky in their early days, missed a lot of fun.