The Howlin' Brothers at the Iota Club

The swinging bluegrass band the Howlin' Brothers perform at the Iota Club in Arlington, Virginia. Photo: The Howlin Brothers

WASHINGTON, June 11, 2013 — The Howlin’ Brothers feel like a bit of a front. On the surface they appear to be a typical bluegrass band, the kind that is starting to regain a considerable amount of steam lately as a genre. That makes it more likely you will see the bands like this crop up locally given this renewed popularity of the genre. For that reason, one might have expected a fun and energetic night at the Iota Club in Arlington, Virginia, during Howlin’ Brothers’ recent appearance at this longstanding bar venue.

The trio of Ben Plasse, Ian Craft and Jared Green, aka the Howlin’ Brothers, started playing together at Ithaca College in upstate New York before relocating to Nashville, which has helped to further their growing identity as a new traditionalist bluegrass band. Bands like this seem to cut their teeth in an area not necessarily known as bluegrass hubs before establishing themselves elsewhere where the genre is more commonplace, and the Brothers are no exception.

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On the surface at least, the Howlin’ Brothers fit the bill of what people might expect from a modern day bluegrass band. The band is very good at moving through the paces of what someone would expect from this style of band, especially in the way they present and carry themselves onstage. So by the time they reach the stage, the audience has a pretty good sense that they are going to have a swinging good time, even if they do not account for unexpected surprises.

This is where the Howlin’ Brothers throw a curveball to the audience. Their expected bluegrass sound is really just the foundation for everything else they do. During their set at the Iota Club, they expanded and contracted their songs with relative ease, performing some basic bluegrass numbers but also incorporating other unrelated touches as well. It is a subtle turn at first, becoming more apparent as the night proceeds and the Howlin’ Brothers start to loosen up.

Improvisation is the key to what makes a Howlin’ Brother’s set interesting. Simply by playing off the cuff when the spirit moves them allows them to play fast and loose with the genre as they drift away from traditional bluegrass while remaining anchored in the template. In that way, they are able to incorporate jazz and R&B as a natural extension of their style without losing sight of their bluegrass roots. 

Stand up bass player Ben Plasse in particular refuses to restricted by anything. He is all over the place, digging in with significant speed throughout each performance. Jared Green’s guitar playing at times hints at a bluesy current flowing underneath the surface, which provides the band with greater depth. The band’s sound is further rounded and rooted by Ian Craft, who fills the sonic spaces in between by playing the banjo, mandolin and fiddle.

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The Brothers up the pace even further when they start to play off one another, as evidenced by their increasingly varying harmonies. They move so swiftly through each song that the gathering, irresistible rhythm becomes quite addictive even as their various styles start to blend together into one cohesive sound that never seems to stop.

While bluegrass may be a package everyone in the crowd thinks they are familiar with, the Howlin’ Brothers put enough spin on their songs that after all the dancing is done, the audience suddenly realizes that this band has been playing something distinctly different the entire night than the average bluegrass they came in expecting to hear.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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