Sunday, 31 August 2014 17:44

Folk and Blues at the Sheldon

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When musical soul mates come together, magic ensues.

Such is the case with the close-knit local folk group, Letter to Memphis, who are getting plenty of press lately. And they are just warming up after performing at the Sheldon Concert Hall, promoting their debut CD, Phases.

It is hard to imagine this is only their first album. Spending the last three years playing gigs around the St. Louis area, they’ve released singles such as Rest Your Head and On My Own, but this indie/folk group is on a fast train to becoming one of the most popular local bands. Performing in one of the most famous and prominent venues of the Midwest can certainly help seal the deal.

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Blending traditional bluegrass and folk acoustics with haunting, rhythmic blues, Devon Cahill and Gene Starks open up about this huge milestone in their music adventure: playing together at the historic Sheldon Concert Hall. It has been a long road for these four musicians, and in many ways they’ve only begun.

Phases is an assortment of previous singles and brand-new tracks, showcasing the various and carefully honed talents of Devon Cahill (lead vocals, ukulele, harmonica, percussion, and some whistling!), Gene Starks (guitar and percussion), Paul Niehaus IV (bass, guitar, piano, organ, electric piano and percussion), and Sarah Velasquez (violin and vocals). Also featured are Mike Murano on drums and Adam Andrews playing harmonica, who both joined the four on the Sheldon’s stage. The talents of these individuals are evident, but what really stands out in this album is the strong, confident songwriting.

Opening with the haunting new track Other Life, Letter to Memphis clearly proved to its crowd they were no strangers to the stage, and on that warm Tuesday night, they kept the audience in the palm of their hand.

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Founding members Devon Cahill and Gene Starks share this unforgettable experience.

 

Describe that moment that you realized this could be something special, that it could be something you could do in front of people, on a stage?

GS: I knew from the moment we played together in our living room that it had the potential to be really good. I just never knew how much of a market there was for a folk duo, especially considering how many talented musicians this city houses. 

DC: We've put in a lot of hard work over the last few years and are always motivated to continually improve as a band. I feel like an extra level of comfort and confidence started to enter into our live performance since we started working with Paul and Sarah (our bassist and violinist) and locked in arrangements as a band with a fuller sound.

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What’s next for Letter to Memphis, and what do you see the band doing in the next couple of years?

DC: Next on the agenda is touring with our new album! We plan on starting slow and doing some more regional "mini tours" before heading out on a longer jaunt. We can't wait to take this new record on the road and share it. A big thing is writing. We're always writing songs and we have some new material in the works. Also, keep an eye out for a live music video as well as an official music video in the near future!

 

Folk music is known for being a kind of genre that doesn’t seem to rely on musical metaphors that screen out or blur the artists’ personal viewpoints. What you hear is what you get, and this can make the music’s message deeply intimate and exposed. What do you want your audience to take from your music?

GS: You're absolutely right that folk music is a pretty straightforward, naked expression of the songwriter's stories. But I think that's where Devon and I, as songwriters, veer off the traditional folk path. I don't shy away from musical metaphors and styles from other types of music, but I try to use them in a way that enhances and supports what we're trying to say. I like to have as big of a musical vocabulary as possible in order to find the proper frame for Devon's voice. Some songs require a traditional folk setting, while others would fall short of its potential impact if it was limited to that setting. We want to take the listener with us wherever we take it, and if that means we need to take them to a gritty and funky place, then so be it. We want it to be relatable, but maybe to also take you out of your comfort zone and get you thinking about things in a different way, with a different perspective. 

 

What was the experience like, walking out on the Sheldon's stage after weeks of rehearsal and seeing the crowd in this famous hall? Was there a moment of realization: "This is really happening?" How was this concert experience different and more mind-blowing than the others?

DC: Leading up to this concert, we knew it was probably going to be the most important performance of our careers thus far. The nerves were intense, and my heart was racing as we were announced. Next thing I knew I was the only one left backstage with everyone waiting. I thought, "Okay, this is it!" and I headed out, shakily. And within 30 seconds of being on the Sheldon stage, every shred of anxiety melted away. The room, the people filling it, the talented friends sharing the stage with me, the energy…I felt immediately like I was at home. I'm still coming down from this amazing night, and will remember how special it was sharing not only our album we worked so hard on, but getting to perform the songs live for such a wonderful, supportive audience in a beautiful, acoustically perfect venue.

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 “I’m never going to let go of this night,” Devon Cahill told the cheering audience on their feet. “Ever.”

 

For more information, check out Letter to Memphis’s website at: www.lettertomemphis.net

And check out their facebook page: www.facebook.com/lettertomemphis

Photography by Autumn Rinaldi

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