The Centre County music scene has its regulars. That’s for sure.
If you look at editions of the Weekender for a few weeks in a row, you’ll see a lot of the same venues and a lot of the same acts. For those of us who are playing gigs and looking to play regularly, it’s just the way it is. But, it’s a pretty tight structure. You get to know whoever does the booking at the venues and your presence builds from there. There are lots of acts in town though — and they’re not just acts, they’re great acts — and it’s always great to see a new band on the scene that’s playing its guts out and pushing to find ways to perform.
Crooked Line is that kind of band. Crooked Line rocks, and it only takes a trip down to Zeno’s on a Wednesday night to get what this rootsy power trio is all about: gutsy original music, pulsing three-part harmonies, instrumental virtuosity and a hard-working approach to practice and preparation.
“We’re trying to ramp up,” Chris Strait said. “We think we’ve put in enough work where we’re ready to get back out there. We like to arrange music, we like to get our hands dirty, we like to be unpredictable and to do that you gotta rehearse, you gotta know when things are coming.”
The fruits of Strait’s professionalism are most apparent when he’s in mid-song, often staring audience members directly in the eye, bringing a physicality to his guitar playing and fervently dancing while he plays. It’s like he’s able to focus better and really feels the intricacies of what’s going on. This is a band that lives in the details, that’s walking through the Americana forest, that’s wading through the weeds and the closer they get to mastery the more the music opens up.
“For me I don’t feel like I’m able to cut loose on stage, or however you want to put it, unless I’m well-rehearsed,” Strait said. “I want to get to a point where I know my material so well it’s second nature, and I’m more free to improvise vocally.”
A key feature of Crooked Line’s show is the original music. Strait is a prolific songwriter who lives in the melodies, but excels in how his lyrics seem to be the only possible match for the rest of what is going on in the music. He’s a great writer, and so is Bob Baroner.
Baroner simply gets the feel of what’s happening between the three of them, and although his singing is understated, it works for the music. It’s deceptively expressive, naturally enhanced by his dynamite banjo picking and electric guitar slicing. It’s all punctuated, of course, by the often magical playing of the sometimes smoldering, but essential ethereal fiddle and mandolin of Steve Buckalew.
“I don’t know why I write,” Strait said. “I know why I want to write. Things happen, really small thing throughout the course of the day, and a line will come to me. Sometimes they turn into lyrics. I don’t know. I’m naïve enough to think that sometimes I’m having this really enlightened experience, and I want to share it with people.”
His modesty aside, Strait is talking about satori, the Japanese flash of enlightenment that comes in an instance and changes things forever. It’s the process of creation, and he’s tapped into it. It also pervades the Crooked Line’s approach to performing, which, by the way, the group is looking to do more and more as the opportunities arise. That includes a big gig at the Elk Creek Café + Aleworks on Dec. 28, and some new recordings.
“We’re recording a new album,” Strait said. “We have about 15 songs to chose from, but we’re not going to do a 15 song album, probably 12. It’s a three-piece the whole way through.”
Still, in the end, it’s all about the shows, like the weekly Zeno’s gig, the Elk Creek gig and the eye on the holy grail prizes of the bluegrass festival scene, like Merlfest and Grey Fox. Strait cuts right to the center when he muses about what it’s like in the pocket.
“Whenever I’m playing music and everything’s as it should be,” Strait said, “your heart starts to beat faster and it’s like a high that you can’t get from anything else. You’re baring your soul to people you don’t even know. The music is just so powerful to me. It’s euphoric. It’s living and breathing and it moves, and you’re part of it and it’s part of you. There’s no better feeling for me.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail .com.