One of the most enduring images out of this summer’s Newport Folk Festival came courtesy of Spirit Family Reunion. They were a motley crew on a sunny afternoon — six of them, dressed in clothes that could have been Dust Bowl vintage and playing an array of instruments, from acoustic guitar and upright bass to fiddle, banjo, and the washboard.
Their harmonies were as close and high-lonesome as anything you'll hear on old Alan Lomax field recordings, but their energy was thoroughly modern, folk musicians with rock-star swagger. And they're all in their 20s and live in New York City.
If you had taken their photo, and then rendered it in black-and-white, you'd swear these guys were at Newport circa 1964. The second coming of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, if you will. Their performance, too, captured the communal joy — that moment when there's no distinction between the audience and the artist — that has always been at the forefront of that vanguard folk festival.
"We were so energized at Newport. It was a massive moment," says Nick Panken, who plays guitar and often handles lead vocals. "Other big moments in our career include finding out that we were going to play Newport. There was so much anticipation for us, and we drove 12 hours overnight to get there."
Spirit Family Reunion, which plays at Cafe 939 on Friday, emerged as one of Newport's most talked-about acts. Drawing throngs of young people clustered around the stage, its appearance christened the band's debut, "No Separation," which had been released two months prior but picked up speed after that late-July weekend.
"In some ways it feels we're a brand-new band because we just put out our first record," Panken says. "In other ways it feels like we've been together forever. It's a funny situation because there's a traditional scene that's happening, but we're not really a part of it. Our connection together is very rooted in traditional American music."
That said, Panken rejects the idea that Spirit Family Reunion is truly traditional.
"I don't know — nobody is really traditional now. You can't really get up on stage and have an hourlong sound check, plug your instrument in, and call yourself traditional," he says. "I think the only traditional band we've ever played with is the Del McCoury Band [the long-running bluegrass outfit], that we got to open for over the summer."
Such a rapid rise is even more remarkable given the band's humble origins. Three years ago, Panken was playing with a revolving cast of musicians, keeping it simple and focused on a mutual love of old music. Three of the members, including Panken, are New York natives; two others are from Virginia, and one's from Connecticut.
"A few of us were just playing around New York casually, playing old country songs at our friends' bars and literally building up toward a band in very small steps. It's the same way anyone builds a weekly jam at some pub," he says. "A few of us are old high school buddies, and the other three we met around town where they were also playing the bar scene in Brooklyn — places where there's no stage, but just a spot in the corner."
The same looseness permeates the band's new album, whose title refers to the fact that Spirit Family Reunion considers no separation between the band and its fans. The songs are intentionally straightforward, with lyrics you should pick up and then sing in unison by the time the chorus circles around. The live shows turn clubs into front porches. Likewise, the record sounds best at home.
"I don't know if our music sounds good through little speakers they have in bars," Panken says. "Maybe it's just meant for a room with a couple hundred people. We're mostly just having fun playing to small rooms where you can see the last row and everyone is there together and there's no pretension. It's just fun."