Jul 1, 2016

The Road to Darling Valley: New Name, New Album, New Beginnings

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here.

If you want a quick visual representation of the mood of Darling Valley’s new album, Crooked Orchards, watch their homemade lyric video for the first single, “Graces.” The four band members take turns standing against a blue wall, flanked by balloons, and hold up poster-board signs with handwritten lyrics à la Bob Dylan. The number of balloons slowly increases and the sign-holding becomes sillier and sillier, as the breezy melody carries the song along. By the end of the video it’s a melee of laughter, air guitar, lightsaber jousting, and balloon bopping.

This Albany folk rock quartet is composed of two married couples: TJ Foster, Lauren Foster, Jordan Stewart, and Ashleigh Whitfield. Formerly known as Accents, they have released two albums previously but their newest release is their first album released under the new band name. Crooked Orchards came out on June 24, 2016, fresh off the presses of Sounds and Tones Records in North Adams. Chris Hantman from the label is a big supporter of the band, and they credit him for bringing the full creative vision of Crooked Orchards to life.

The warm, comfortable familiarity that the band members have with each other really comes through in their songs. TJ and Jordan met as roommates at SUNY Oneonta, and Jordan went to high-school with Ashleigh. The band Accents was created as a solo project for TJ, but he soon brought in Jordan and Lauren to do some recording and perform with him live. Jordan was married to Ashleigh at the time, and says that, “it was a natural transition for Ashleigh to join and create what is now Darling Valley, since she had been a vocalist for years and we were all best friends to begin with.” Ashleigh came from a chorus and musical theatre background, as evidenced by her rich, resonant voice. As she says, “I lived and breathed nothing but Broadway for several years.”

As the first release under their new name, Crooked Orchards marks a new sense of cohesiveness and beginning anew for the band. TJ describes the decision to change the band’s name from the more generic Accents to Darling Valley: “The four of us all came from different places and different backgrounds but we ended up where we are now, living less than a minute apart and we embrace that every day. That’s our darling valley – a place where we can celebrate every victory and plow through every loss together.” The band, in that sense, becomes a true home for its members, which they can furnish with their respective talents and passions. TJ feels solidly at home in music, and says, “When I’m writing or performing music I feel like myself. That longing for comfort and catharsis is really what keeps me playing day after day after day.” He was the one who urged Lauren to get back into singing and performing, and she credits him as one of her inspirations; as well as her “true muse: Jenny Lewis.”

Darling Valley’s sound is varied enough to satisfy any fan of folk, alternative pop, indie rock, or acoustic balladry. On this album, there are so many good tracks that it’s obvious they’ve come into their own stylistically. “Written on My Bones” begins with sweet, sparkling guitar and unfolds into the bright, acoustic rock sound that Darling Valley does best. Jordan mentioned that he was “on a Simon & Garfunkel kick around the time we recorded the album,” and it really shines through in places. The second single, “Widows and Revolutionaries,” is a rousing, foot-stomping song with a soaring melody, lyrically reminiscent of The Decemberists. “Five Years at Sea,” a contemplative song about travel, even has some surf guitar touches swirling through the tambourine beat.

A lot of the songs are about the endlessly complex topic of love – with two marriages in the band, there must be plenty to write about. As the lyrics go in “Half Your Life,” the Nationals-esque album’s closing track: “But I know now / Love is the best thing we do / And I’ll give my best side to you.” Indeed, the band incorporates their love for other members of their families into their musical projects as well.

Their second music video from the album for the song, “You’ll Go Far, Kid,” was conceived and expertly directed by Adeline Foster, the 8-year-old daughter of TJ and Lauren.

Darling Valley recently won WVCR’s “Play to Play” contest, and will be playing at the free, outdoor concert series Rockin’ on the River on July 6 in Troy, NY. To stay updated on their other upcoming shows and more exciting music video releases, be sure to follow them on Facebook or check out their website.

MASS Gathering 2016: Bacon, Yoga, and Rock 'n' Roll

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire View magazine, here. All photos by James Grady.

I am standing on the vernal summer slopes of Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, amid a crowd of people gathered in the thick humidity to watch Matisyahu perform. Skirts are billowing, bare feet twirling, heads nodding, wristbanded arms flung up in the air. The scent of pot drifts over our heads in peaceful, eddying waves. In the middle of the gaggle of bodies a man dances with a cigarette in one hand and a water spritzer in the other, which he sprays periodically over the crowd’s thankful heads. Mid-verse Matisyahu clutches the mic with both hands, closes his eyes, and begins chanting in Hebrew as the cheering swells.

Matisyahu became well known in the mid-2000s as the man who introduced Jewish hip-hop to the mainstream. He was a Hasidic man who could expertly beat-box and spit rhymes over a reggae fusion beat. Lately he has shorn his beard, but he is still just as devoted to his personal faith as to his music. An avowed Phishhead, Matisyahu’s love for full-band improvisational jam translates into an amazing live act. There were Santana-style guitar flourishes, intense drum solos, and the most entertaining keyboardist I’ve ever seen; he rocked and grinned over the keys like jazz virtuoso Keith Jarrett. Matisyahu’s verbal acrobatics, coupled with his phenomenal backing band, created a groove that pulsed through the ground and got everyone to dance (or at least sway in quiet joy.) Onstage he jumped and kicked around like an ecstatic ska Jim Morrison.

After the show the band was gathered out behind the stage, signing autographs and taking selfies with fans. We talked to Matisyahu for a minute and learned that the Pennsylvania native had once visited Great Barrington as a high-schooler. One of his friends had been accepted into Bard College at Simon’s Rock at 17, and young Matisyahu (then Matthew) came to visit him. He said laughingly that things looked pretty much the same here as they did then.

The bounty of food trucks at the festival did not disappoint. I had a perfect burger with all the fixings from PaPa Dogs and Burgers, cool hard cider from Hilltop Orchards, and talked with the lovely husband-and-wife proprietors of The Farm Concessions. They drove their truck all the way from Keene, NH, where they will soon be opening a café. A few hours later, I gave in to temptation and got fried, bacon-wrapped mac-and-cheese balls on a stick from The Chuck Wagon; as you can imagine, they were sublime. At least I didn’t get the “Hot Mess”: a Twinkie and a hot dog deep-fried together and smothered in pulled pork.

As twilight loomed over the festival grounds, a circle of women was silhouetted against the mountains doing group yoga. Up on the hill above them, people retreated to camp sites, wrung out their sweaty T-shirts, or settled onto blankets to watch Whiskey Treaty Roadshow bash out some good roots rock at the festival’s after party. Assembled on stage were 7 string musicians – on guitar, bass, banjo, or Dobro – and one drummer. They had been playing alt-country and Americana classics all day between acts on the main stage. I recognized Chris Merenda from The Picky Bastards on banjo. In the grass watching them were couples drinking beer, a woman swinging a hula hoop around the bun on her head, and solo listeners sitting on blankets or laid-out sweatshirts. As Chris sang “This Land is Your Land,” the pink-laced azure sky slowly darkened and the first day of the festival wound down to a close.

To see more photos of this year’s MASS Gathering from our editor and expert photographer, James, check out The Berkshire View’s Facebook page. We have photo coverage of events throughout the day, including some of the other great bands who performed. These include Deer Tick, Gin Blossoms, Parsonsfield, Wild Adriatic, Madaila, Strange Machines, DJ BFG, and West End Blend.