ROCKPORT — The members of trio Red Molly did not get together through a careful plan.
Camping with a group of fellow singer-songwriters in 2004 at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival — a small festival with a fervent following, held just past the Berkshires into New York State — the three found themselves jamming on a Gillian Welch song around the fire, improvising vocal harmonies and surprising themselves with just how good it sounded.
“It was the first time for me that I had collaborated. Instead of playing our own songs alone, we were playing together. It was definitely one of those watershed moments when I realized, this is better than anything I’d been doing. And the keyword was that it was fun,” recalls Laurie MacAllister, who strummed the acoustic guitar in those days but has since switched to bass.
She found that moment of musical kismet with Abbie Gardner, who had just recently taken up the dobro, and Carolann Solebello, who switched between guitar and bass before moving on from the group in 2010. Guitarist Molly Venter got to know the group during a few stints as its opening act, and joined when Solebello left.
All had worked as solo performers in the folkie realm (though Venter identifies more as an indie-folk/rock artist), and had achieved some measure of success, but had also come to find solo life on the road to be unappealingly grueling.
After the initial jam, the trio turned up the next day at one of the festival’s smaller stages with a handful of other itinerant folkies in tow and played an impromptu set. “I got the dobro out of the car,” Gardner says, “and we just started playing songs and we fell into this three-part harmony that was really fun. It was just kind of uplifting. I think we were all looking for something, and getting really burned out on touring alone.”
After the festival epiphany, the three assembled to play some more. Soon it became obvious that they would take a stab at the band thing. “We just had so much fun putting songs together and coming up with the harmonies, doing gigs at that point was almost an afterthought,” recalls Gardner, who says she crafted vocal arrangements for an a cappella group the Treblemakers while a student at Boston University. “I liked that it came from a place of just pure enjoyment. We weren’t thinking of it as a job yet,” she says.
The vocal harmonies may be the most distinct element of Red Molly’s work. The trio mixes originals and covers in an Americana-steeped sound, including influences from country music and contemporary folk. Though there used to be more of an instrument-switching vibe onstage (with banjos coming and going), the group has largely settled into a dobro/bass/guitar format.
Venter, a New Haven native who went to Williams College, says she was questioning whether she could continue with her solo-career lifestyle when the call came to audition for Red Molly. Speaking on the phone from the road (as do her bandmates), she says she kept a quiet presence onstage for the first year or so in the group. “As we got to know each other much better and joke around offstage, I think that the stage performance has gotten a lot more candid,” she says, “and kind of sassy and witty. I think there’s a little more back-and-forth that’s really playful.”
As Red Molly’s 10-year anniversary approaches, the band has found some momentum. Recent years have brought an inaugural trip to Australia and an opening slot for Willie Nelson, and 2013 saw Red Molly’s first European tour stops. The trio’s first shows in England and Ireland are on the books for later this year. Red Molly plays the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Saturday.
Its fifth LP, “The Red Album,” is due for late-May release, and has a sense of purpose to it. The group is observing its history while also aiming for a wider audience. Produced by Ken Coomer, former Uncle Tupelo and Wilco drummer, it includes Red Molly’s first experiments with electric guitar and electric dobro. With original tunes by Gardner and Venter and well-chosen covers by musical inspirations like Simon & Garfunkel and Richard Thompson, at times it shows more of a pop feel than was heard on the group’s earliest work, but there’s no dramatic shift here. (The Thompson cover is Red Molly’s first recording of the much-loved “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” from which the trio took its band name.)
Red Molly has always sounded like contemporary interpreters rather than strict preservationists, and “The Red Album” has a good chance of walking that magic line of satisfying the band’s hardcore fans while also attracting new ones.
“We want our sound to evolve so it stays interesting to people and so it’s more and more accessible to a wider and wider audience,” MacAllister says. “It’s not like we have a particular career path or things like that in mind, but we’d like to keep it going and stay happy and have this life where we can play music and still have rewarding, full personal lives. Striking that balance is a challenge but we’re doing well so far.”
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