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Magic Tuber Stringband, from North Carolina, are Courtney Werner and Evan Morgan. The duo are at the forefront of artists inhabiting the rich, living musical traditions of the Appalachian region, not as preservationists, but as fluent speakers shaping the forms with their inventive new ideas. The music, contemporary in nature, shares a through line with its history in both technique and in inspiration. Magic Tuber Stringband’s music, like traditional music of the region, exists in constant communion with the natural world. The duo’s music thrums with a primal, vital energy that speaks to an intimate relationship with both folk practice and the natural environment. Morgan is an organizer within the local music community, and Werner is a dedicated naturalist involved in local land stewardship. Needlefall answers the question “what does a modern string band sound like?” with powerful new arrangements of traditional songs and transcendent originals. The album is teeming with life, translating abundant ecosystems into arcing melodies and shimmering, mystic drones.
Much like the North Carolina wilds it reflects, Needlefall waxes and wanes from mysterious and unsettling to ecstatic and awe-inspiring, capturing the sacred dimensions of the natural world. “We’ve always been interested in how religious tradition takes on a more mystical form amongst people who are exposed more directly to the forces of nature,” the duo elaborate. “If you spend enough time out in the woods you inevitably see or hear things that are hard to explain. I’ve been in caves where it’s total darkness and you’re enveloped by the disorienting sound of dripping water. The natural sights and sounds in these places are often repetitive, percussive, expressive, sometimes unsettling - the way that water carves patterns into rock or tree trunks appear in endless rows.” The field recording running through “The Hermit’s Passage” into “Water Dripped Upwards” encapsulates such otherworldly experiences, recorded accidentally during a paranormal experience in the woods. Title track “Needlefall” translates the changing of the seasons into Terry Riley-esque minimalism, the group spinning subtly evolving rhythmic layers while striking a delicate balance between composition and improvisation.
Magic Tuber Stringband draw on a host of fellow travelers to realize Needlefall’s intricate arrangements. The album was recorded at an intimate space owned by members of Sluice and Weirs in one session with minimal overdubs. “We thought about how artists like Don Cherry, Marion Brown, and Terry Riley would bring people together for free improvisation but also set intentions or prompts and we tried to take a page from their book,” the duo explains. Touring member Mike DeVito’s subtle percussive flourishes enhance the natural rhythmic power of the music. Local music legend Crowmeat Bob adds to the album’s polyphony with clarinet and saxophone, leading an aching melodic lament on “The Long Suffering”s invocation of Greek folk tradition. String player Andy McLeod and saw player Dan Patridge add subtle instrumental flourishes to the group’s dense interlocking melodies without sacrificing the intricacy of the arrangements.
Needlefall exemplifies the diversity of contemporary folk movements, placing Magic Tuber Stringband’s work in the tradition of modern innovators like Moondog, Harry Partch, Pauline Oliveros, and labelmate Sally Anne Morgan. The vast forests and mountains that inspire the duo act as a metaphor for living music traditions – ever-changing and yet still standing, shaped over time by human hands while equally shaping the human experience.