Sounds Local: The Gas Light Tinkers — fusion that gets you moving
The Gaslight Tinkers hadn’t even taken the stage and the dance floor was already filling up, a sure sign that this crowd was familiar with the band and its danceable grooves. The group, which consists of Peter Siegel on guitar and mandolin, Garrett Sawyer on bass, Zoe Darrow on fiddle and Dave Noonan on drums, takes traditional New England, old-time and Celtic fiddle music and merges it with Afro-pop, funk, Latin and reggae rhythms to create intriguing music you can dance to.
This particular show, held at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, was especially upbeat as it was a CD release show for the band’s debut CD: “The Gaslight Tinkers,” a seven-song disc that mixes original and traditional material that showcases the group’s bold style of music making and the positive energy it generates.
The Gaslight Tinkers’ members are superb musicians who aren’t afraid to take risks, as evident by their version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home,” which features Afro-beat rhythms and some nice fiddle and vocal work by Darrow. Then there’s “Morrison’s/Bird’s Nest,” a traditional Celtic jig with a timeless melody that a takes on a whole new sound when the Tinkers add a reggae beat. This disc is enjoyable and interesting to listen to, but songs like “Nail That Catfish to the Tree/Lil’ Liza Jane” are made for moving your feet.
The disc was produced by Garrett Sawyer and recorded at his Northfire Recording Studio in Amherst.
The Gaslight Tinkers formed about three years ago when Siegel and Sawyer were both looking to do something new. Siegel is a Pete Seeger-inspired folk musician from Brattleboro, Vt., with years of experience working as a solo artist and in various bands. He brings a strong background in traditional music to the table. Sawyer, who is from Wendell, was a founding member of the popular local reggae band The Alchemystics and also toured with Senegalese hip-hop band Gokh-Bi System and Trinidadian soca star Kurt Allen, experiences that gave him extensive knowledge of world music grooves.
In a recent phone interview, Siegel noted how he and Sawyer joined forces: “I had been in the folk scene for quite awhile, touring as a singer-songwriter and doing traditional music. Garret was used to the more party music scene. So, we said ‘let’s start a band that sort of fuses what we do together.’”
If they were going to mix traditional folk with various world music genres like reggae and Afro-pop, they needed a fiddler and it had to be a fiddler with strong presence and one who was extremely flexible. Siegel knew that the fiddler who fit that description was Zoe Darrow.
Darrow, who lives in Northampton, is well versed in Cape Breton, Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes and had been fronting the band the Fiddleheads since she 4. When they asked her to join, she didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Rounding out the group is Dave Noonan of Shelburne Falls, an ethnomusicologist who, like Sawyer, has extensive experience with world music having played in bands like The Equalites, Ed Mann’s Dub Jazz Unit, Fenibo and Little Shop of Horas.
From the start, the members of the Gaslight Tinkers knew that they wanted to create music that would inspire dancing.
“We want it to be happy and joyful and something that people want to move to and not have it be just a listening experience,” said Siegel.
They also wanted a fresh approach toward traditional music. Siegel pointed out that a lot of young bands today are playing old-time music and either perform the songs exactly the way they sounded 100 years ago or try and do something cool like putting a funk beat to an old song. He stressed that the Gaslight Tinkers is different in that it genuinely wants to play the music in a way that is present and up to date.
“For instance, take a song like Woody Guthrie’s ‘I Ain’t Got No Home.’ I think if Woody were alive today playing music, I don’t think he’d play it the way you hear it recorded from 75 years ago,” explained Siegel. “I think you’d hear it played the way we do it with sort of an Afro-beat. It’s a song about immigration and it would be influenced by other cultural phenomena.”
He added that when the Gaslight Tinkers approaches a song, the band members ask themselves the question “how should this song be presented now without pretense?”
Do they ever worry that incorporating such varied genres into their music that they might alienate listeners?
“Yes, it has always been a concern,” said Siegel. “But I think that we have a sound and people either like it or they don’t. But I don’t think that one song varies so much from another that it’s going to stand in the way.”
And nothing has stood in the way of the Gaslight Tinkers finding an audience.
“We’ve never had a bad show,” said Siegel “And we like playing together. One thing that has made this group successful is the way that we support each other.”
And while it is not a contra dance band per se, the group is able to adjust its music so that it works for contra dancers, for which the band frequently plays.
The Gaslight Tinkers has a series of local shows coming up and then it is off to Washington, D.C., and North Carolina, which it hopes is the beginning of more shows outside of the area. Siegel said the band members would love to tour nationally.
“I’m really hoping that people get a sense that the music we are doing is really positive and that we are trying to do a higher vibration experience for people when we play. We want to see more people come out.”
Shows this month
The Gaslight Tinkers will perform on both days at Green River Festival in Greenfield. On Saturday, July 12, it will play a set of its own music and on Sunday, July 13, it will host and be the backing band for a vaudeville show that includes circus acts, slam poetry and much more.
As of Wednesday, the Green River Festival was sold out.
Tickets can be purchased at www.greenriverfestival.com at the Signature Sounds office, 32 Masonic St. in Northampton (use the back door, weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., or at Elmer’s Store, 396 Main St. in Ashfield. To purchase by phone, call 877-987-6487.
The Gaslight Tinkers will also play a free show at Whetstone Brewery, 36 Bridge St. in Brattleboro, Vt., on Thursday, July 17, at 8:30 p.m. Then, it will play a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange, 401 Chapman St., Greenfield, on Saturday, July 19 at 8 p.m. Cost for the contra dance is $10, $8 for students.
The band wrap up the month with an appearance at the Upper Valley Music Festival in downtown Greenfield on Saturday, July 26. Festival tickets are $15 and available at www.uppervalleyfest.com.
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org