While the rising popularity of Americana music in the past decade is an encouraging sign, watching one exceptionally well-grounded roots group sprout right before your eyes is truly a thing of beauty.
The Nashville tag team of two Cryar sisters and two Jones brothers, collectively known as the Vespers, grew from budding talents into a Family Tree of Life over only a matter of months during 2012.
Receiving an email at the end of last January that touted an up-and-coming quartet with an ability to "create infectious folk-pop with both the buoyancy of youth and deeper spiritual themes" was intriguing enough, but the group name with religious connotations further piqued my curiosity.
Admittedly not a follower of Christian music but willing to keep an open mind, it only took one listen to an advance copy of their second release, last April's "The Fourth Wall", to make me a true believer. A March interview with Callie and Phoebe Cryar only fortified those beliefs. And to top off the year, I was fortunate to see this sister-and-brother act make their Denver debut, an energetic, engaging and inspiring performance as headliners on November 18 at the Soiled Dove.
Their first tour through the West ("We'd never been past Texas," drummer Taylor Jones stated) was made in a 16-year-old van that lost its power steering and alternator on the way to Colorado.
Following a solid warmup by classically trained SHEL (an acronym of the four first names of Fort Collins' lovely Holbrook sisters), the Vespers arrived without little fanfare, illuminated only by white lights on their mic stands.
Then the cool licks of Bruno Jones' slide guitar set up Callie's explosive cover of Son House's "Grinnin in Your Face," her dynamic, soulful vocal raising expectations in the room considerably higher than the temperature. Setting the bar at Rocky Mountain heights, the group went on to provide down-home charm and upscale musical versatility in a lively but limited hourlong set that should only get better with age and experience for a foursome that formed in 2009.
Callie, 22, the older and more pragmatic of the two sisters, brings a huge voice and megawatt smile to the stage, while keeping everyone else in line. After one in a series of exchanges between the bearded brothers who are addicted to watching pro wrestling, she remarked in a manner that sounded more spontaneous than scripted, "Hey guys, less talk, more rock."
To which the sometimes sweet/sometimes sassy Phoebe, 20, replied, "Hey Callie, less jerky, more turkey ... 'cause it's almost Thanksgiving."
Seemingly shyer and more reserved than her self-assured sibling, the banjo/guitar player demurely added, "I pride myself on being the most awkward, unfunny person on the stage. Every now and then, I just have to let it out."
Though her personality and voice might not be as powerful as Callie's, the kid sister of the group displays a feistiness and inner strength that ultimately endears her to the audience. In our interview, Phoebe made it clear that sharing stories about themselves to connect with the crowd is an essential component of their act, while Callie gave a more practical reason.
"That type of banter onstage came about because we have to change instruments a lot, and so we want to fill that silent time so there's not awkward silences," said Callie (right), who previously downplayed her instrumental prowess but during this concert broke out the ukulele, acoustic guitar, banjo and even electric bass while head-banging through a cover of Van Halen's "Jump."
Rehearsed or improvised, much of their chatter covers a lot of ground, including: work history (Callie: "I used to wake up at 4:15 in the morning and go sell donuts to snobby, rich people"; Taylor: "I used to sell white beans and cornbread to really poor people"); personal relationships (before Phoebe announced to the crowd that she's engaged and seeking marital advice, Bruno quipped: "Two families and nobody's dating each other, before y'all ask that. I know it's a typical Tennessee question ... it's Kentucky that does that"); or the merits of homeschooling vs. public schools as a segue into a rousing version of "Got No Friends."
Whatever the revealing subject may be, though, it must be tough to keep up with the Joneses.
Taylor, 23, a diehard San Francisco 49ers fan who admits he would fit right in with the cast of reality TV's Duck Dynasty, and Bruno, 21, primarily an upright bass player who occasionally jumps behind the drum kit and also doubles as the band's manager, are natural-born comedians.
Members of the Vespers at the Soiled Dove, from left: Taylor Jones, Phoebe Cryar,
Callie Cryar and Bruno Jones.
Most of the best one-liners belong to Taylor, who's still learning to play mandolin. During a delay to fix a broken string, his brother came to the rescue. Bruno, named after his German uncle, told a straight-out-of-Hee Haw cornball joke about the dangers of lawn mowing in Louisville, Kentucky. It took him a while to get to the punch line as he struggled to hold back tears of joy in front of a howling crowd that added plenty of moans and groans.
While such tomfoolery is a delightful way to win over an audience, there's much more to the Vespers than funny business. Seven of the 10 songs performed were from The Fourth Wall, which only reinforced my opinion that the album, which they first learned by playing live, belongs near the top of a best of 2012 list I'm submitting to No Depression.
As principal songwriter, Phoebe (left) on her own penned "Lawdy," "Jolly Robber" and "Will You Love Me," a personal plea to Jesus, but members of the band shared credit on most of the others, excluding Callie's "Winter" and the Son House cover.
The green-eyed ladies who have been mistaken for twins are two of seven children in a family whose patriarch, Morgan Cryar, sang Christian pop music for a living in the 1980s. Through other songs such as "Better Now" (a three-minute ballad that sums up their ideals) and the slow-building "Close My Eyes" (which finishes with Taylor's exhilarating drum flurry), they subtly bring family and spiritual values to the Vespers.
Newcomers probably don't notice such veiled references until the closing minutes of the show, when Taylor proudly proclaims, "Hey, God is good, amen. Well, hey, we're all Christians up here onstage. I know we may not come across as a Christian band, so to speak. But that doesn't matter to us. We just want to be a band of Christians."
The indie-spirited Vespers are committed to reaching more people through word of mouth, but it's still their talent and work ethic that ultimately will take them as far as they want to go.
If an under-the-radar status was partly responsible for drawing a half-full house to the precious but intimate Soiled Dove, only the no-shows should feel disappointed.
As long as there's a willingness to branch out and make more beautiful music together, it's not going out on a limb to say that bigger venues and high-profile festivals are in the Vespers' immediate future. In fact, they're already booked for their South by Southwest debut in March during what should be a busy 2013.
A number of outstanding "family" acts I have enjoyed or interviewed recently, including First Aid Kit's pair of Swedish Soderberg sisters, the three siblings in the Band Perry, Canadian twins Tegan and Sara, British folk rockers the Dunwells and the Rob and Rachel Kolar-fronted He's My Brother, She's My Sister, are currently more visible, but the promising Vespers have something that they don't:
A show of faith that's a blessing in disguise.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of the Vespers and SHEL at the Soiled Dove in Denver.