Armed with an album’s worth of new material for the first time in nearly a decade, Acoustic Syndicate returned to Carrboro, NC’s Cat’s Cradle for a Saturday night show that turned out to be a showcase for new songs instead of the usual barrage of crowd favorites. The McMurry clan (Steve, Bryon, and Fitz), along with bassist Jay Sanders and Billy Cardine on dobro, are newly committed to making music again, and it’s invigorating for the band and their fans to hear freshly minted songs emanating from the stage. The songs aren’t all that’s new, though. Sanders now utilizes the very beguiling Chapman N/S Stick alongside his standard four-sting, and Bryon McMurry has taken to picking up an off-white Stratocaster between frequent bouts with his banjo. The “acoustic” part of their moniker has never been less indicative of their sound than it is now.
After a charging “Terra Firma” opener, the band immediately plunged into their new bag of songs. “This is what they call a ‘mid-life crisis’” quipped Bryon as he grabbed the guitar for new songs like “Rooftop” and “Hourglass,” the latter of which has a marked pop-rock feel. Other fresh songs, like “Bicycle Song” and “Heroes,” featured the band’s tried and true blend of banjo, bass, guitar, and drums alongside their one-of-a-kind vocal harmonies. They’re obviously still working out the kinks in some of the songs in preparation for recording the album, and their notorious musical tightness made a handful of missteps noticeable. There were just a few shaky moments and forgotten lyrics in there, though the slightly more stage-tested “King for a Day” has certainly come into its own with confidence. In any event, none of the new stuff suffered as much as an older tune, “The Pilot,” in which Steve McMurry became completely detached from the actual lyrics and humorously laughed his way through most of the song.
The infusion of new material has added an element of setlist uncertainty that had been missing from post-hiatus Syndicate shows. Their old tunes are just fine, that’s for sure, but the shows had taken on a predictable nature over the last four years. Now, with huge chunks of new material taking up time, the setlist variation brings a new kind of excitement to the proceedings and fans have to hang on with renewed intensity to every performance of touchstones like “Try As I May” and “Sailor Suit.” Whiffs of the old Syndicate were fleeting, with highlights like “No Time,” an oldie that seems to be get faster tempo-wise with each passing year, and their tried-and-true cover of “North Country Girl” drawing the largest audience reaction.
Unfortunately, a good portion of the notoriously early Cradle crowd left before the show’s undisputable highlight, a huge encore jam that ignited in the middle of “Long Way Round.” Longtime pseudo-member Mars Farris joined in on electric guitar and helped urge the band through a lengthy, fearless improvisation. Syndicate has a tendency to jump into the deep end every once in a while, and Sanders relishes the opportunity perhaps more than the rest. The song’s intro was stocked with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Twilight Zone theme teases, and the band’s cyclical soloing eventually led to a no-holds-barred, effects-laden space jam between Sanders and Cardine. It was experimental music from a group of good old boys, and when they wrapped the beast of a jam with the end of “Long Way Round,” the air of possibility was palpable. Based on this show, getting back on the road and playing new songs will certainly usher in a new golden age for Acoustic Syndicate.