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Crooked Still still crooked

By C. Eric Banister, August 2008

They say one sign of maturity is the ability to adapt. Although still a young band, Massachusetts quintet Crooked Still shows marked signs of maturity on their third album, "Still Crooked," on Signature Sounds.

After a successful tour supporting their 2006 release "Shaken By A Low Sound," founding member and banjo player Greg Liszt was recruited to tour with Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions band, a tour that took Liszt around the world and away from the band he helped establish. But it was only a brief absence of two month, and the band recruited the capable fingers of Noam Pikelny, now a member of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers.

Liszt looks it as a beneficial absence. "It didn't just affect my playing. It affected my whole mode of existence," Liszt says during a recent phone conversation as the band made their way from Greensboro to Charlotte, N.C.. "The way it affected my playing is it caused me to simplify things quite a bit and look at the big picture. It's good to work with a guy who is super creative and accomplished, but also really keeps his eye on the big picture at all times. It was good for my general musicianship."

"I've sort of adopted as much as I can. Rock and roll musicality is based on riffs and good songs and nice grooves. Those are the things that are high on my priority list ever since doing that tour."

Oxford Town

Not long after the Springsteen tour ended and Liszt rejoined Crooked Still on the road founding member and cellist Rushad Eggleston announced his intention to leave the band. "It wasn't a huge surprise," Liszt says. "That guy played in the folk world for so long and played so many folk shows and had such a huge impact on the whole scene that it kind of made sense to me that he would want to go off and play crazy rock music for a while and just sort of recede from the scene for a little bit.

"He's an envelope pusher, and he is also a very restless personality, which are two things that lead him to develop that cello style, and they are also the same two things that would lead him to move to Los Angles with his actress/model girlfriend and dress up and play crazy rock music on the cello."

Eggleston now plays the California region with his group Tornado Rider performing with a drummer and occasional guitarist melding his cello to riff-based rock 'n' roll songs with a fantasy theme.

With his departure, the group was now faced with the decision to either continue on or call it quits, and the decision was made to carry on with the foundation they had built, letting the group evolve as organically as it could. "When you lose a member of a group it, of course, changes the dynamic of the band," lead singer Aoife O'Donovan says. "Rushad was one of the original members, but we decided to move forward and see what happened."

Liszt echoes O'Donovan's thoughts: "It's been great the way the band has evolved since Rushad left because you never really know what it's going to be like going forward. You just decide that you want to keep going, and you just pick the two best possible people, but you never really know what it's going to be like. And it's really been great. I mean it's been unbelievable. The band is recognizably still Crooked Still, but it has more of an ensemble feel to it now. It's nice. People are responding to it very well, which is good. We like it a lot and it is always good to see other people feeling the same way about it."

As Liszt, O'Donovan and bass player Corey DiMario looked out for the two best possible people, the choice was immediately clear to them. "They were the list," O'Donovan says with a laugh.

"Both of them were kind of known on the scene. It's not like we discovered them or anything," Liszt notes. "They've been out there doing all kinds of stuff. They're pretty well known among the musicians of our generation."

Indeed.

Fiddler Brittany Haas, who played on one track of the band's debut album, "Hop High," met the band through Eggleston, who she played with briefly in Darol Anger's Republic of Strings. She is a student at Princeton.

"The first time I met Brittany we were in the studio recording the first Crooked Still album," remembers Liszt. "She was in town visiting Harvard...She came in to visit and sit in on a couple of tunes. I remember when I first saw her play Angelina The Baker, and she totally just killed it. It was surreal to watch it, I couldn't even believe it."

The second new member was also known to the group from crossing paths on the touring circuit. Tristan Clarridge, who also played in Anger's Republic of Strings, is a four-time Grand National Fiddle Champion and the youngest person to ever win the title. "The first time I met Tristan was at a bluegrass festival in California, I believe. He had this crazy double cello jam with our old cello player in the middle of the night, which, again, kind of just blew me away," Liszt says.

Now that the new group was assembled, the band got together for a weeklong retreat to begin work on their new release. "We especially had to do it this time because we were a brand new band coming into the recording studio," Liszt says. "We'd never played a show all together as the five of us, so we really needed to spend some quality time and come up with some kind of rapport, which took all of about five minutes."

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