Spirit Family Reunion: Blurring Past and Present

Music Features Spirit Family Reunion
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Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Album: Spirit Family Reunion
Band Members: Nick Panken (vocals, acoustic guitar), Maggie Carson (vocals, 5 string banjo),
Stephen Weinheimer (vocals, bass drum, washboard, tambourine), Mat “Twain” Davidson (fiddle, accordion) Ken Woodward (vocals, bass), Peter Pezzimenti (vocals, drums)
For Fans Of: The Felice Brothers, Chatham County Line, The Band

Spirit Family Reunion has only been a band for three years, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to their songs. All dusty acoustic guitars, wailing fiddles and weeping accordions, with a woozy-yet-skintight rhythm section—and topped off with burr-edged vocals that sound like they’ve been soaked in a Mason jar for generations—it’s the type of music that blurs the line between past and present so thoroughly, and so deftly, that time feels irrelevant.

All of which is intentional, according to vocalist and guitarist Nick Panken. “I like it when you can listen to music and nothing disqualifies it from being a really old song or a new song,” he explains. “I mean, I love Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, but I also love artists that were influenced by them, like The Band and Neil Young. And then I love people who were influenced by them, like Gillian Welch. When we play longer sets, we’ll play our songs and their songs, and it’ll all even out—and hopefully nobody is able to tell the difference.”

The band is hardly alone in its acoustic-driven approach—old-time instruments are the new black, popping up on indie rock records and newgrass albums with equal frequency—but if Spirit Family Reunion is part of a trend, Panken says it’s an accident. “It’s a good time to be doing this,” he admits. “For whatever reason, this kind of rootsy thing is on a lot of people’s minds now. That isn’t why we’re playing what we’re playing, but I think the fact that it’s appealing to so many people right now has helped create a lot of opportunities for us—and helped make it so we’re not just dismissed outright as some kind of tribute act.”

To hear Panken tell it, the band has always been more about the—pardon the pun—spirit than the craft. “We’re lucky that it just kind of comes out,” he says of their sound. “We don’t really work out the harmonies so much—or anything, really. You know, the band kind of came together on the street—playing at the farmer’s market, or the train, or the parks and stuff. To do that, we have to play really loud to be heard. I have to sing really loud. The keys that I need to sing really loud are the same ones that everyone else needs to do their thing. It just fits right in—it works. When we started playing together, it felt like something really special.

“Ken, our bass player, had been away for a little while,” Panken continues. “He was traveling, working on some farms, and he came back to the area to play with us and do a little touring. Last month was actually the first time he’d toured with us, and he said ‘I think we should call the band Spirit Family Vacation, because this is a lot of fun!’ Music is definitely the glue, but this feels like family.”