Black Prairie is an impossible band to classify. They’re billed in some circles as indie rock, but that’s not quite accurate. That may be because it’s the type of musical circles the members of the band normally travel in. The most well known members of Black Prairie spend most of their time in the folk rock band the Decemberists.
There are a few similarities to the Decemberists’ work here and there, but anyone expecting that brand of folk rock/indie pop, should leave those expectations at the door. Black Prairie abandons any of those pop sensibilities for the most part, instead trading them in for an altogether distinct sound.
It would be a bit too simple to call them an alt-country band as they don’t seem to share many of the same principles aside from sounding like a band that might interest people who have a leaning in that genre. The road they seem to travel is that of a bluegrass band.
Although bluegrass tends to sound a bit more upbeat than Black Prairie’s leanings would suggest. The lyrical material (on the few songs that they put lyrics to) is in line with bluegrass, but their sound in general puts across a stronger sense of sadness and brooding. There are a few up tempo knee slappers, but for the most part there’s a grey cloud hanging over a majority of the songs.
Basically though, Black Prairie defies simple classification. They bring too many things to the table to be labeled so easily, which ultimately makes their live setting interesting and enjoyable.
What’s most interesting about seeing them in a setting like the Iota Club is that half their discography doesn’t seem to traditionally fit in with a club venue. The band promotes an almost organic, outdoorsy vibe, to be played at the kind of parties in open fields that only seem be shown in movies set during the turn of the 20th century. There should be dancing anytime Black Prairie plays, but they don’t exactly exist in a setting that encourages that type of behavior.
That’s all well and good though for the band. Playing behind a simple back drop of normal bulb lights, it’s easy to get lost in their straight instrumentals. The music plays like the soundtrack to some quirky western, where open fields are suffocated by the darkness of the sky.
The songs like “Ostinato Del Caminito” are meticulously paced but also have a feeling like they’re going to unravel at any point, which is true about all of their up tempo songs. They have a way of weaving in and out of each instrument, focusing on one and then quickly backing off, effortlessly granting attention to each band member.
The real standouts are Conlee-Drizos’ accordion, Funk’s slide guitar, and Annalisa Tornfelt’s fiddle. Each one is able to make their case when they’re pushed the forefront and allows them to mix in several styles.
The real highlight of the show though comes on the few occasions when Tornfelt puts aside her fiddle and is allowed to sing. The instrumentals are well handled but their strongest songs in the set were the ones with vocals attached to them.
Tornfelt’s voice is at once dark and somber with almost a bluesy rasp to it. This is especially where they betray their country and bluegrass leanings, as the emotion attached to her voice doesn’t necessarily coalesce with those genres. She has an absolutely haunting nature to her vocals, she could sing almost anything give off the sense of longing and sorrow. Especially outstanding is her work on “Red Rocking Chair.”
A less interesting band would probably find itself retreating into a few of the genres that Black Prairie jumps in and out of on any given song. They have a certain confidence that allows them to play with convention, always in control and assured of what they want to do. Black Prairie puts on nothing short of a mesmerizing show.
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