By: Sean Moore/ Photos By: Jennie Walker
Della Mae, walked up the stage at Port City, lights dimming and instruments tuned for the opening song, “Empire.” What seemed like a small crowd quickly swelled into a larger mass when the music began.
There was plenty of boot-stomping, hooting and hollering. The ladies of Della Mae certainly know how to grab the crowd’s attention with their rootsy, bluegrass tunes. One of my favorites from the night was a feminist anthem they have yet to record, called “Headlight” which singer Celia Woodsmith dedicated to Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill, just about halfway through their set.
Della Mae is a Nashville-based, all-female bluegrass group that has garnered quite a bit of attention since forming in Boston around 2009 and a lot of that is thanks to their live show and word of mouth from audiences that witness their collective charisma and musicianship. Their sound combines a perfect blend of contemporary bluegrass and Americana/roots (re: The Punch Brothers and The Avett Brothers, as well as Dustbowl Revival and Old Crow Medicine Show), but what really sets them apart from their peers is the versatile vocals, often trading lead between mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner and lead singer Celia Woodsmith, who brings not just a beautiful voice, but also a snarl in her delivery. The harmony of the band really brings everything together. Watching them play together and enjoying it all, brings happiness and joy to the audience. They are in the midst of a small, headlining tour to support their new EP The Butcher Shoppe (which came out in March) before a prime opportunity as the opening act for Steve Martin & Martin Short (Steve Martin, himself, a bluegrass musician in his own right, most likely handpicked these ladies). Upon opening their show (sans an opening act, and they honestly did not need one) with three excellent older tunes “Empire,” “Turtle Dove,” and “Down to You,” the crowd was hooting and hollering, as if they were at an outdoor, barnyard/ farm show, which is perhaps the setting music such as this brings to mind.
It took a few of these opening songs to get the crowd dancing, but when the Jenni Lyn started strumming her mandolin with fierceness, and Kimber Ludiker’s fiddle asserted itself, the crowd knew it was in for a night of hotstepping, square-dancing, fiery show. Della Mae’s original guitarist, Avril Smith, got not just the crowd’s but also her band member’s undivided attention through her many solos throughout the night. One of the greatest “surprises” in the set was their version of a Grateful Dead tune “Mississppi Half-Step” which they really made sound like one of their own and fit perfectly within their set. They managed to play all the songs from their new EP and the crowd stomped their feet to the new tunes, especially “Bourbon Hound” and the set ending “Sixteen Tons” the most. Of course, it was their most well known song, “Boston Town” that got the loudest crowd reaction, with hoots and hollers, as well as the whole crowd singing along during the chorus.
One of my favorite elements of shows like these is that a band with such diverse musical backgrounds and musicians who bring distinct styles can come together and showcase each other’s talents, giving one another the spotlight at various moments throughout the show. They take their songs and stretch them out and make them sound like something unique and special to the singular night you are experiencing it live. They have clearly studied and learned the craft of playing these types of songs from their influences. Perhaps the most important piece, though, is that they absolutely love what they are doing, and it shows in the smiles and laughs they share together on stage.