If you’re a fan of innovative acoustic music, watching Asheville, N.C.’s Jon Stickley Trio live is one of the best experiences you can have.
Stickley plays acoustic guitar like it’s an extension of his body. His control, speed, and precision are all stunning.
Standing alongside him, fiddle player Lyndsay Pruett is just as skilled, tossing off dazzling solos or mournful melody lines with equal ease. Oftentimes during a show, the two of them will face off in a good-natured battle, spinning out incredible solos and feverish duet passages that combine fierce improvisation and crowd-pleasing theatrics.
And underneath all of that, drummer Patrick Armitage is in constant motion, pinning down the beat and intently watching both players so he can add or subtract from the rhythm as needed.
Altogether, it’s breathtaking to watch them build tension and release throughout a song.
It’s also a sound that, up until this year, they’d never quite captured on an album. Their previous releases, “The Jon Stickley Trio,” “Lost at Last,” and “Triangular,” were full of great playing and great ideas, but they didn’t feel quite the same as the band’s incredible onstage work as an ensemble. Their new album, “Maybe Believe,” has finally filled that gap.
On “Play People,” for example, Pruett and Stickley build intensity by weaving their instruments around one another, as Armitage pummels and massages his kit nonstop. “Almost With You” flows through peaks and valleys like a distant mountain range, with Pruett’s swooping solo buoyed by Stickley’s low-end lightning-speed fretwork and Armitage’s deft work on the cymbals. Each track seems to show off a different aspect of the band’s sound.
“Our music grows a lot with every new performance, so our goal was to get the songs ready far enough in advance that we could really let them come into their own, and then go in and record them.” –Jon Stickley
“This album is the most representative of us,” Stickley says. “We’ve got a lot of miles under our belts, and it was a really natural representation of where we were at.”
Stickley says he’s especially happy with the way the album spotlights Pruett’s playing. “We wanted to feature her a lot because she’s a highlight of the band,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that position. Her playing has grown into something really unique and personal to her.”
The band has a heavy touring schedule, and that’s one of the reasons that the playing on “Maybe Believe” is so tight. Knowing that they’d only have a few days to record the album, the trio honed the songs as much as possible onstage.
“A lot of the time when you go into the studio and lay down a song, it’s pretty early in the song’s life,” Stickley says. “Our music grows a lot with every new performance, so our goal was to get the songs ready far enough in advance that we could really let them come into their own, and then go in and record them.”
Perhaps the best way to gauge the range of the Trio’s music, which takes in elements of progressive rock, bluegrass, jazz, and even electronic dance music, is to look at the three covers on “Maybe Believe.” The band tackles a song from Tony Rice (“Birdland Breakdown “), a classic bluegrass fiddle tune (“Jerusalem Ridge”), and a track by the eccentric electronic icon Aphex Twin (“Avril 14th”).
“On the last album, we covered ‘Slopes’ [by the bluegrass supergroup Strength in Numbers], which to us was a newgrass classic,” Stickley says. “So we went back into that realm with ‘Birdland Breakdown.’ And we always like to do a traditional fiddle tune, and ‘Jerusalem Ridge’ came up, so we used that to pay tribute to Bill Monroe. As for the Aphex Twin song, we’re all big fans of that type of music. It was a softer, more beautiful piece that would round out the album.”
Stickley says that that breadth of styles is what makes the band who they are. “Ultimately, we tend to just do whatever we want and that’s super freeing,” he says. “Anything is fair game, because this is an experimental project at its core.”