The Littlest Birds’ new live album is the band’s third full-length set, and comprises recordings made at live shows over the course of 2013, during which the band performed over 130 times in 30 states and in Canada.
In these days of instant access and digital downloads, a well-presented physical package is a treat. And Live & Lucky is a delight, coming in a limited edition (numbered no less) hand crafted sleeve, made by Independent Project Press in Bishop, CA. The design, in reproduced pen and ink, features a scene of the duo’s arrival at yet another show, and the conception and packaging is a perfect fit to the band’s independent ethos. If you hurry, you might still be able to get a physical copy.
Live & Lucky takes in 13 tracks of some of the Birds’ favourite material and spans a mix of self-penned, adapted, and traditional pieces, all recorded across the tour at a selection of venues and radio appearances. It both reflects their cello and banjo combinations, and casts them in a new, perhaps more intimate light, also highlighting the way the duo’s voices interact and work together. The collection of course captures the feel of their live shows, but also allows their songs to exist in more than their recorded state. Their versions and variants are expressed fully, differently to ways in which they have been heard before.
Dragonfly is a perfect portrait of that intimacy, that immediacy of live recording, as the sound slowly develops and changes – as David Huebner’s cello picks up, Sharon Martinson’s vocals come in, complementing her slowly turning banjo, with the cello overlaid on top.
Say Darlin’ Say is a lively take on an old time classic, before David’s lazy, languid, Drifting explores songwriting and the effectiveness thereof. A beautiful song, its interplay of instruments involves the banjo providing backing to the melody of the cello. David has a voice which is equally at home on the commanding, commandeering tone of this piece or the quieter, more piercing vocal he uses at other points on the collection.
The band use a subtle arrangement on their take on the popular Reuben’s Train. After the banjo introduces the song, the cello doubles in – adding a dimension in a way unique to the Birds. The cello adds a ‘train’ element, allowing the whole song to feel like a journey, forwards, onwards. In this way, it mirrors the tradition it is a part of, taking you places near, far, over time and space. In the duo’s hands, it is invigorating, exciting, enticing.
Waterbound is perhaps the album’s zenith, a song the Littlest Birds were made for, and that they have made their own. Trading sounds, voices, and ideas, their version follows the plot and its episodes, but done in their own close, intimate way. This contrasts with David’s Roots, which allows more space to breathe, space to be and space to explore. Huebner’s work explores experience and how we relate to each other and to music.
The often bright, languid Shady Grove is given an almost dark, trepidatious feel to it. The banjo/bassy cello intro really gets inside you, under your skin – feel the dankness and the closeness before the voices come in. Whilst not exactly harsh, it is raw in the best way, not showing the sweet delivery found on other versions by other singers. The Birds can and do shape songs to fit their moods and aims, with Sharon’s verses especially strong, marked by her strident, clear voice.
The band do not shy away from important songs and important stories, and they handle Black Elk Speaks/This Land Is Your Land imperiously. The songs show that the band are aware of the importance of what the songs contain, and charge themselves to deliver, to tell, to try to relate. The stories, and their history and culture, tell themselves, if you listen, if you invest.
The sweeping, swooping beauty of Storms and Elk River Blues is astounding, completed by Sharon’s intoxicating vocals. On Lost In This Canyon we discover the cello again, still questing, still journeying, evoking the outdoors, and being wholly away from other things. We’re also treated to a radio recording of Peg and Awl to finish the album, with a sweet delivery which shows off an obvious love for the song and songs in general.
Live & Lucky really is a wonderful record, full of life, love and ideas, and a band who love what they do and give that love to audiences, whether live or on record.