By Margaret Welsh
There are a couple of ways that Borrowed and Blue, the new EP from Buffalo Rose, might seem a bit anachronistic.
First, it was recorded live, with all six members of the folk ensemble gathered around a single omni microphone — an approach which harkens to the kind of studio technologies used by the band’s musical forebears in the early and mid-20th century.
And second: Even though it was recorded earlier this year, there’s an intimacy and energy to Borrowed and Blue that many of us have been missing for what feels like a very long time. As Current editor Charlie Deitch wrote last month, “If there’s one thing to be thankful for in this godforsaken coronavirus-infested world, it’s that Buffalo Rose got to record its new EP before social distancing.”
“I would say we’re kind of an anachronistic band in a lot of ways,” agrees Bryce Rabideau, who plays mandolin. At their core, Buffalo Rose is a folk band, with many traditionalist Americana elements. But, he adds, “folk is a genre that is constantly changing and updating.”
Recording Borrowed and Blue in a relatively old-fashioned way wasn’t a gimmick. “We don’t have to be precious about it,” Rabideau says. “I think our approach is to do anything we can to capture the feel of a live show.” And a record of live, single takes was the perfect way to do just that.
On Friday, May 29, the band celebrates the release of Borrowed and Blue by reigniting that energy via a livestream on its YouTube channel.
About a week before my Zoom chat with Rabideau and upright bass player Jason Rafalak, the band had started very cautiously reuniting in person. “Now that we’re in yellow,” Rafalak says, “we did some soul searching and talked about who we’re interacting with, and worked out the specifics.” There was some rust to shake off, but “there’s definitely a spark, being able to play with each other again,” he says. “We spent a lot of time going, ‘This is weird, right? It’s weird that we’re here, right?”
Almost three months apart was a long time for Buffalo Rose, which has been a band since 2016. Before that, the members — including singers Lucy Clabby and Rosanna Spindler, singer-guitarist Shane McLaughin, and dorboist Malcolm Inglis — were all active elsewhere in the Pittsburgh music scene. But there’s something special about this specific configuration of artists.
Along with the EP, the band is releasing a series of videos of the recording session. The musicianship is fun to witness it itself, but there’s a palpable electricity between the members that gave me goosebumps. The members swap grins as instruments and vocal harmonies play off each other, and that unmistakable thrill of perfectly hitting every note radiates right through the screen.
While traditional bluegrass is at the heart of Buffalo Rose’s sound, the band has adopted some poppier elements in recent years. And Borrowed and Blue showcases that range by opening and closing with some tricky covers: Madonna’s “Borderline” and a mashup of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” respectively.
Rafalak says that they didn’t just want these to be bluegrass versions of the songs, noting that a successful cover is a balancing act between retaining what you love about the song and adding something new. Both covers are pretty faithful, but the band manages to avoid the cringy twee irony that so often befalls similar attempts by indie folk-rockers.
For “Borderline,” in particular, Rabideau says, “we tried to preserve the spirit of the song,” while, for example, swapping out a drum part for a mandolin. “If a band’s energy is solid enough, they can cover something and not sound exactly like the original, and not be boring.”
The rest of the songs on Borrowed and Blue are originals that had been previously released on other records. But, Rabideau says, “I would say we’re a different band from when most of them were written.” Which meant that playing those songs felt a little like playing covers, too.
As they transition back into collective performance — now in front of a camera instead of a live audience — Rafalak says that the hardest part is figuring out where to find energy.
Borrowed and Blue shows that they have a lot to give each other. But sometimes it comes, in subtle ways, from an at-home audience too. The other day, Buffalo Rose participated in a livestream for Club Passim, in Boston. “After our first song, a GIF of Shia LaBeouf clapping popped up,” Rabideau recalls with a laugh. Other comments and emojis began coming through, too. “It’s like a little line directly to your ear,” he says. “So you’re getting direct feedback in a way that you wouldn’t from a crowd of people.”
That may feel like a far cry from what was possible just a few months ago but, Rafalak says, “there’s something social about it. We’re all going through a struggle, but we’re making it work.”
For more information visit www.buffalorosemusic.com