February 25, 2010
Plug in and play
Avi and Celia go electric with Hey Mama
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s the sweet spot of Friday night as Celia Woodsmith wraps her ample voice around “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Wearing black evening gloves tipped with steel fingernails, she scrapes and slaps an antique washboard while guitarist Avi Salloway plays along on bottleneck slide and sings harmony.
Many versions of the oft-covered blues standard sound downright mournful, as if the singer sitting at the peak is ready to jump off. But these guys turn the song into a celebratory romp, exhorting the crowded college bar to whoop, clap and sing along.
As Avi & Celia, the pair has visited the Seacoast before, playing stripped-down Americana at the Press Room, Dolphin Striker and other Portsmouth clubs. Last year, they changed their name to Hey Mama and added a rhythm section, bass player Ben Kogan and drummer Jared Seabrook.
The four-piece band released its first album in December.
Salloway and Woodsmith co-wrote 10 of the eponymous record’s 11 tracks. Some, like “From the Bottle” and the bluesy shuffle “Sail On,” sound like they could have been written 50 years ago. Others — the chamber pop “Mountain Stones” and the jazzy “Red Signs, White Fences” — have a more modern sheen.
The independently released record was made with assistance from engineer Jack Gauthier (State Radio, Low Anthem). It also contains a cover of “Drivin’ Nails” that rocks a lot harder than the Floyd Tillman original, with plenty of punch and power provided by Kogan and Seabrook.
“We grabbed that from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott,” Salloway said recently from his Cambridge apartment. “It’s a very earthy tune,” Woodsmith adds. “We both really liked it and especially like how it sounded throwing it into a rock setting.”
The two met in college, “second day of freshman year,” says Salloway, who was playing along to a Carlos Santana record when a cute girl walked into his dorm room. “Damn, things are working out alright,” he recalls thinking. The girl turned out to be Woodsmith’s roommate. Woodsmith continues the story: “She came back and told me, ‘I broke into this dorm earlier today and I found this guy, and he’s really good at playing guitar!’ At that time I was just starting songwriting and my adventure with music and it sort of piqued my interest to actually start playing with someone.”
“We played music the first day that we met,” Salloway says. “A few months after that, we had our first show.” Despite many assumptions to the contrary, they’re not involved romantically, and never have been. “It’s a musical love affair,” Salloway says.
Growing the longtime duo into a quartet was a natural extension of their collaborations with other performers. “Celia and I have been playing together over six years now, and throughout that whole time it’s been an experimentation process,” Salloway said. “We like the feeling of working with other musicians.”
At various times, they’ve played in bluegrass bands and been backed by horn sections. Fellow musicians in an Afrobeat band introduced them to Kogan and Seabrook in mid-2008. “Late-night jams led to bonds, and then an interest to work together,” Salloway said.
“We also went into finding these people with an intention of creating something sustainable,” Woodsmith said.
“I think opening the name up to more than just Avi and Celia allows us to experiment with other people and a different entity,” Salloway said. “I can kind of see the evolution of the band changing a little bit — adding an accordion player, or a Rhodes player.”
The pair’s synergistic songwriting process remains the same, however. “I bring stuff to him and he brings stuff to me,” Woodsmith said. “Learning from one another how to write songs has really taken us a while, but I think we’ve hit our stride … we already have enough for another album.”
After a few New England shows, including a performance at the Stone Church in Newmarket and a free show at the Pembroke American Legion, Hey Mama will head out on a southeastern tour. The two-week swing stops in Washington, D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana, culminating in Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest festival.
“It’s our first time, we’re very excited,” says Salloway, who noted the band has booked multiple appearances at the famously chaotic five-day festival, including “two really good showcases we can really count on.”
Woodsmith went to the Kerrville songwriter’s festival a few years ago. “I’m really looking forward to going back,” she says. “There’s a million bands, but we’re really excited to go make our mark on that festival in whatever way we can.”
Where: Stone Church at Zion Hill, 5 Granite St. in Newmarket, 292-3546
When: Friday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m.
Also: Hey Mama will play a free show on Saturday, Feb. 27, at 7:30 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, 3 Glass St. in Pembroke