The Strumbellas make their mark, albeit goofily, at ACL Fest

By Steve Scheibal, special to the American-Statesman

“So, like, how’s your guys’ dancing?”

The Strumbellas perform on the first day of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Sept. 30. 09/30/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Strumbellas perform on the first day of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Sept. 30. 09/30/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

So asked singer/acoustic guitarist Simon Ward midway through the Strumbellas’ steamy mid-afternoon ACL Fest set on Friday. The question served as notice/warning that the band was about to show off its Canadian dance moves — which, in turn, provided the third of at least four of the afternoon’s allusions to the band’s Canadian-ness. Ward went to great lengths to embrace goofball hockey-and-maple leaf archetypes, as though they freed his band from the Mumford and Cousins gravitational field into which groups like the Strumbellas are increasingly being sucked.

Indeed, the Strumbellas play the sort of souped-up folk rock that the Lumineers and others have ridden to surely unimaginable success. It’s also led to a backlash against souped-up folk rock that’s spawned things like, well, this.

So, with every bit of silly stage banter, Ward veered away from overwrought melodrama — going to great lengths, for example, to turn 19-year-old synthesizer player David Ritter (the gentleman with the baseball cap reading “DAVE”) into a conversation topic.

The first part of the set was similarly distinctive, featuring Ward’s acoustic guitar and Izzy Ritchie’s fiddle against an electric, amped up four-piece. The songs were fun and very nearly rocking; they could have slid easily into a power pop playlist. There wasn’t an anthem in sight.

But come the anthems did. Right after the band gyrated through the breakdown in “The Long Road” (the dance moves Ward mentioned), the set started surfing crescendos, catharses and earnestness. They sounded great, and the sizable crowd was greatly pleased. But it didn’t seem too far removed from something that four guys in chicken suits might cover.

If anything set the Strumbellas apart, it was their unassuming agreeableness. They were clearly having a ball and enjoying the show, intent on sending everyone else home happy.

As Ward put it, just before breaking into the band’s hit “Spirits,” “I think Austin might be our favorite city to visit.”

Aww, I’ll bet you say that to all the cities.


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