Xander’s fiddle is older than any person (120 years) and cries some mean crocodile tears. Justin’s guitar dates back to the ’30s and smells like a musty attic. Orion’s mandolin was crafted in 2006 but sounds like its strings could have been the first on which “Man of Constant Sorrow” was ever plucked.
The three West Virginia boys—Justin Morris and brothers Xander and Orion Hitzig—that constitute the BrownChicken BrownCow String Band are strikingly young to be such proficient purveyors of old-timey music. To watch them on stage, standing around a single mic, is surreal; they look like they wandered here from another time and place.
To watch them jam on a front porch somewhere in the night, in the rain, crickets chirping, is unreal.
Those of us who haven’t been steeped in the music of the Deep South would call them bluegrass, but we’d be mistaken.
The old music makers back home would never in a million years call it that, the boys say.
The trio incorporates a long list of elements into its tunes, which consist of about 70 percent originals and 30 percent covers: old-time fiddle, “new age” folk, gypsy jazz, Celtic, reggae and others, they say.
“It’s hard to label something you’re in the middle of,” says Morris.
All three view Jimi Hendrix as a major influence and they do a mean cover of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Just don’t ask them to play “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
While bluegrass in pure form has the tendency to get stale to the untrained ear after about an hour or so, the boys seem to be able to craft their songs with a rare dynamism capable of luring and retaining a diverse constituency of listeners. They’ve been playing together for less than a year, but you wouldn’t know it. Their playing is incredibly tight despite some damned intricate melodies and complex song structures, and they pull it off with the kind of comfort and ease that only come after spending every waking moment making music together—which is, from the look of it, what they do.
It seems slightly incongruous that a string band from Lewisburg, West Virginia—a band that counts Civil War reenactments among its past gigs—would want to come to Maui to peddle its wares. But in the short time they’ve been here they’ve amassed quite a following.
When seated at an outdoor café in Paia, nearly everyone who passes honks their horn, waves or flashes a shaka.
Ultimately, though, the boys are just passing through; they plan to head back east in May, and then head for Europe in the fall.
“You can’t go home if you’re already there,” says Xander who, in addition to playing fiddle, sings and plays guitar, banjo and probably a dozen other instruments.
They’ve played Ambrosia, Café Marc Aurel, the Dog & Duck and can often be seen jamming on the sidewalk at various spots throughout Paia. They play at Mulligan’s on the Blue on Friday evening and will do an afternoon set or two at Whaler’s Village on Sunday.
Being on Maui has already had an impact on their sound—a beneficial side effect of being on the road, the boys say, especially given the authentic music of the isles and the long list of phenomenal musicians here.
Their approach to recording and promoting in each locale is unique; they use a new set of photos and other promotional materials for each place and record a disc that will only be released in that one spot. The CDs they’re selling at their Maui shows are not available anywhere else.
“It’s already started changing the way we play,” says Morris. “Without a doubt. Maui is a magic place.” MTW