Fresh Twists on an Old Sound 

The Stairwell Sisters play the Freight and Salvage

The Stairwell Sisters don't take the stage like most old-time music bands, somber and serious. They enter laughing, dancing, and winking at the crowd with the energy of a basket full of puppies, bright-eyed and ready to take on the world. And with good reason. Their close harmonies — usually duets delivered by various pairings of the five Sisters — effervescent stage presence and, most of all, clog dancing and hamboning, have marked them as one of the more unique acts on the local traditional music scene.

Chalk it up to their sense of independence. "In old-time music, everybody usually plays all at once," explains clogger and banjo player Evie Laden, who was introduced to folk music by her father in New Jersey during the '60s folk boom. "It's not a soloing kind of music, but as our arrangements evolved over the years, we've learned how to leave space for each other."

The sisters began their journey when rhythm guitarist Sue Sandlin and dobro ace Lisa Berman met while working together at a graphic design company; they used to sing in the stairwell of their building on breaks. Bassist Martha Hawthorne took clogging lessons from Laden, and Berman knew fiddler Stephanie Prausnitz from another old-time band and invited her along. At their first rehearsal, they clicked — and audiences can feel the spark.

The Sisters' eponymous debut, released in 2003, was a bare-bones excursion into hard-core traditional music, recorded in a friend's living room. By the time they cut Bare Feet All Over the Floor in 2005, the band's songwriting chops had noticeably matured. "Longest Night of the Year" is a heartbreaking lament that sounds like a mainstream country hit without compromising its old-time bluegrass feel. "Stranger Stop & Cast an Eye" is a worthy companion to Doc Bogg's "Oh, Death," a collection of epitaphs set to music and recorded in — where else? — a stairwell to provide a ghostly echoing sound. "Wish I Was" brings some modern spunk and good humor to an old-time courting song.

Such twists caught the attention of roots music producer and pedal steel ace Lloyd Maines, who'll record the band's next album. Maines, who's worked with Wilco, Joe Ely, and Jerry Jeff Walker, first saw the group when they were busking at a mall in Boulder last year. "He watched us for about an hour, which is pretty flattering when you're playing on the street," Laden recalled. "He bought our CD and we kept hearing that he was talking us up to anyone who'd listen."

The Sisters hope Maines will help them continue to stretch the limits of old-time music on their next effort. Laden's husband Keith Terry will lend his percussion skills on one track and Maines will probably add some pedal steel. Prausnitz lived in Tanzania last year and came home with an African song the group is arranging. She'll also play Stroh fiddle, an instrument with an old-fashioned sound invented in the early days of recording.

That's not as much of a stretch as it might sound. While most people are aware that the banjo has an African origin, few may know that the clogging tradition — a percussive style of dancing done wearing wooden shoes — also has African roots. "Clogging is the great granddaddy of tap dancing — a style based on the step dance tradition of England and Ireland mixed with the rhythms and slap-foot style the slaves brought from Africa," Laden says. "Old-time music is dancing music, but there's no percussion instruments except the stomping of feet, or maybe hambone," a method of slapping out rhythms on the body with one's hands. African-American hand percussion was the result of slaves being denied drums, she says, and people started playing rhythms on their bodies.

The Stairwell Sisters plan to record their upcoming show at Freight and Salvage, and may use the live tracks on their new album, scheduled for a May release. "We want to try our new songs on the crowd and see how people react," says Laden. "People usually record the songs first, but we wanted to see what works before we go in to record. Every band falls into comfortable patterns. With Lloyd's help, we'll be trying to break out of that."


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