Early in their 12-year career, the Infamous Stringdusters musicians had a mission that was plenty ambitious.
“Originally, our goals were almost strictly musical, I think, being the best improvisational progressive bluegrass-based band we could, that was the goal,” Andy Hall, dobro player in the group, said.
That remains an objective, but over time, that mission has evolved.
“As we’ve sort of grown and matured, a higher goal has come to the forefront. And that is the idea of like bringing joy (to people),” said Hall, who called in late February to talk about all things Infamous Stringdusters. “The idea of being like the hottest pickers or that sort of thing, it’s still fun, but it’s become less important than the idea of connecting with fans and bringing joy to their lives.”
There’s no better example of that mission at work than “Rise Sun,” the new studio album the band will release on April 5.
“Overall, from the first song being ‘Rise Sun’ to the last song, there’s really an element of an uplifting, hopeful vibe that we really wanted to capture,” Hall said. “We want to use the album as an opportunity to uplift people and make them feel good and hopeful. So there is almost this spiritual element to the record, and certainly not religious in any way, but just that there’s something deeper.
“There’s love, there’s understanding, there’s togetherness, and all those things have been infused into these songs. That’s what we’re trying to promote. Yeah, there are hard times, but there’s hope, there’s fun, there’s joy. That has really coalesced on this album.”
The album-opening title song sets the lyrical tone, expressing hope for “a new day coming,” and asking “Why are we worried, tell me/Why are we crying, tell me/Can we live together without pain?” Other songs expand on that basic message. “Planets” is a call for unity and understanding, wondering “Will we ever be as one/or are we just planets circling the sun?” and “Truth and Love” urges people to “let the light shine from your soul” and live a good life, clearly inferring this outlook will rub off on others.
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Musically, “Rise Sun” fits nicely within the band’s catalog, which now numbers eight studio albums. As on the earlier albums, the new songs are rooted in bluegrass. But up-tempo numbers like “Rise Sun,” “Comin’ Again” and “Carry Me Away” possess both an energy that’s more akin to rock ’n’ roll and vocal melodies that are richer and more developed than what’s typical in bluegrass.
Combining energy and melody has long been a trait of the Infamous Stringdusters, but the group’s sound has grown more seamless over time.
In addition, the scope of the band’s music widens a bit with this latest collection. “Long Time Gone” has almost a cowboy country feel in its twangy sound. “Somewhere in Between” hints at a gospel-country-bluegrass mix. And on songs like that latter tune, “Thunder” and “Truth and Love,” the Infamous Stringdusters slow their roll, while still finding ways to imbue these ballads with an edge and hooks that hold your attention.
The band came into the “Rise Sun” project after a particularly auspicious period that began with the early 2017 release of the album “Laws of Gravity.” The acclaimed album sent the group on nearly two years of touring, and at the end of January 2018, it was named co-winner of the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, along with Rhonda Vincent’s “All The Rage — Volume 1.”
But “Rise Sun” delivers on the expectations created by “Laws of Gravity.”
What’s more, the band — which includes Hall, fiddle player Jeremy Garrett, bassist Travis Book, guitarist Andy Falco and banjo player Chris Pandolfi — has been progressing with its live shows. Over the past couple of years, the group has been using improvised segues or instrumental segments to weave together several songs into longer pieces within the show. Hall said this creates fewer breaks between songs and gives the show a better flow from start to finish.
The band has continued its tradition of changing up its set lists from show to show, and will perform Tuesday (3/12) at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. In addition to starting to add in songs from “Rise Sun” into its sets, the musicians have taken steps to make the shows even more varied from night to night.
“We have a huge repertoire right now, and as of this year, we’ve really made a point to try to use more of it than we had say in the last year,” Hall said. “In the last year, we would kind of focus on certain songs that we felt were strong and we would do them more (often). But we’ve kind of made an effort to really incorporate a lot of the good music that sometimes just falls by the wayside because we have so much. So we’ve gotten more organized with having like song lists that dig a little bit deeper into our original catalog and we mix up the sets even more.”
WHAT: The Englert and Gabe’s present: The Infamous Stringdusters
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday (3/12)
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TICKETS: $26.50 general admission; Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/events/
BAND’S WEBSITE: Thestringdusters.com