Wow, the Packway Handle Band was awesome. I'm not sure I've seen a live band with that much energy. Their stage act was polished but also felt spontaneous and fresh. The group had clearly worked hard on it, working in a close space and moving to crowd around the stereo condenser mics. The visual machinations complemented the sound; for instance, during the choruses of the caustic "I'm Glad You've Got My Priorities So Straight," fiddle Andrew Heaton and mandolinist Michael Paynter would stick out a limb as straight as the title suggests.
The group plays a lot of offbeat covers - The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" and Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting For My Man" are two examples - and these were crowd pleasers, but the group's original tunes engaged the crowd as well. Paynter eschewed his mando for a small drum kit on a couple occasions, and it fit the mood of those songs and added some variety. Like Trampled By Turtles, the Packway Handle Band is pretty irreverent in their approach; the solos of Heaton, Paynter, banjo player Tom Baker and flatpicker Josh Erwin bordered on a punk aesthetic. Another unique highlight was Paynter and bass player Zach McCoy beat-boxing at the beginning of a raucous version of the Violent Femmes' "American Music." The Packway Handle Band does everything they can to make a live show a fun event, and it shows.
Opener Hickory Strings didn't have the same rapport with the audience despite incredible instrumental skill. The trio of Geoff Brown (mandolin), Mark Whitaker (banjo), and Gian Pangaro (bass) played pretty instrumental tunes, often acoustic symphonies with multiple parts. Brown and Whitaker are fine melodic players, and Pangaro showed great range, whether bowing in a cello-like feel, slapping a percussive backbeat, or keeping time in some sparse tunes. But for all their skill, the group had a tough time engaging the crowd. The Monday ambiance (bluegrass night is usually Tuesday) might have thrown things off; I'll have to check them out again on a more typical night.
Packway Handle Band official site
Hickory Strings official site