About 20 minutes into the Shoaldiggers’ set, frontman Daryl White twirls his 6-foot, blonde bass in a circle and snaps his right hand across the strings with a smile clearly visible from under his dark handlebar mustache. This show at the NC Folk Festival is the biggest crowd the Shoaldiggers have seen since they began in 2013, but White moves like he’s alone in front of his bedroom mirror.
The stage is scattered with instruments — about 17 total, stacked in racks lined along the nine players: a flute, a silver trumpet with a mute, a banjo, two saws, a couple saxophones, three guitars lined up in a row, a washboard and a triangle hanging from a short pole. Two drum sets buttressed the stage.
As winners of this year’s NC Folk Fest’s Not Your Average Folk contest, the Shoaldiggers earned this gig on the Old Courthouse Stage, accumulating the most online votes from a pool of 57 applicants, so no doubt they felt pressure to produce. As the winners, they also won 16 hours of studio time with Black Rabbit Audio.
The group has nine members who occupy a space between folk, rockabilly and blues.
“Rebar Sunsets” begins gently with just two guitars, drums and bass. White’s dark, gravelly voice sets the stage, harmonizing with three others. Suddenly the saxophone, trumpet and mandolin pierce through the chord to blare out a short hook, and the energy shifts completely. Gary Larson’s fingers move in a blur across the banjo strings. Nick Mitchell stands up to come in on his washboard, adding a staccato rasp to the drums. It’s a rapid-fire percussive stew, one that reverberates through crowdmember’s chests.
In another number, Larson picks up his electric guitar for a quick eight-bar turn wailing and whining as if he only had 20 seconds to impress Jimi Hendrix.
As a folk-influenced band, the Shoaldiggers also employ the saw, that throwback to Appalachian mountain music. It sounds like the whistling wind, it sighs like an old creaky door, it weeps like the siren’s song. People have been using saws to make music for as long as they’ve been mass produced, following the long tradition of people creating music out of whatever they had in their homes. It wasn’t until the last hundred years when saws specifically for music making began to be made.
Halfway through the set, the Shoaldiggers change their sound for “6 Degrees of Freedom,” a song about going off to sea, leaving a woman behind. The drummer switches from drum sticks to soft mallets, the brass section winnows down to a single flute, two saws and a muted trumpet. White pulls out a bow for his bass.
The instrumentation for each song, White says, “depends on who is writing the song…. Depends on the feel of the song, too, whether or not we want to use the flute or saw or something.”
On whether he was nervous to play in front of a large crowd, White replied breezily.
“Nervous?” he asked. “No, we practice really well as a group. The only thing I was nervous about was the weather.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified percussionist Nick Mitchell as Jim Adams. The correction has been made. TCB regrets the error.
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