Spirit Family Reunion are en route to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and at any moment Nick Panken’s phone could lose reception. But the cellular waves are hanging on, and the singer/guitarist of the Brooklyn bluegrass sextet is rummaging through details regarding the upcoming Harvest Festival, a two-night concert his band organized as a way to take a county fair and drop it into Williamsburg.
“I think, in a way, it’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out the things we can do that would give it more of a carnival kind of feel. We didn’t feel like we could pull off a petting zoo or a dunk tank this year, so we went with the face paint and tarot cards.”
His goal is for the Harvest Festival to function like the kind of community event you’d find in some flyover state, with dancing, a popcorn machine, and the yodeling cowboy Ernie Sites serving as host. Panken finds that the end of summer is one of the more social times of the year, and the festival is planned as one final hurrah before everyone goes into hibernation.
Spirit Family Reunion deserve a party to salute their successful year. In April, the band released their strongest album to date: Hands Together, a record that highlights their tight precision in crafting three-chord-structured songs bursting with ripe melodies while Maggie Carson’s sharp banjo commands the lead. They commemorated the album’s release with a Music Hall of Williamsburg performance in the spring, but for the Harvest Festival, Panken wanted to spread the focus among a handpicked lineup of bands they’ve encountered over the years. Victory Gardens, Spitzer Space Telescope, Big Kitty, Innov Gnawa Band, the Horse-Eyed Men, and the Love Supreme are all set to perform, with diversity a key point Panken wanted to make.
“I think any musical scene encounters a moment where people sense the need to evolve and explore other areas, because otherwise, it tends to get stale,” he says of the local bluegrass scene. “And I think the lineup of the Harvest Festival is a really good example of the other areas that have a lot in common with the kind of music that’s been played at the Jalopy Theatre, but not exactly going in that direction. The performers we have play the kind of music that suggests some different places where the [scene] could potentially evolve to and include. For instance, the Moroccan band Innov Gnawa would be an evolution, but also fits in right at home.”
Although New York is notorious for breeding and mobilizing various styles of music, bluegrass typically isn’t one that jumps to mind. But a burgeoning scene is here, found nightly at the Jalopy Theatre, among the thousands of songs in Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton’s repertoire, and during the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival. Seeking out this subculture gives the city’s bluegrass community its own character and has been a continuing source of inspiration for Panken.
“Growing up in the city, [bluegrass] music was not super prominent and you had to search it out a little bit. You kind of like this music and somehow you become interested in it, but you don’t really know anyone else who has the same kind of interests — you have to dig a little bit, pull a few layers back, and then all of a sudden you wind up out in the middle of nowhere by the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in Red Hook and you’re at this little dive called Jalopy and there’s a whole bunch of other people your age playing this kind of music,” muses the Flatbush native.
“There’s something almost like a secret society. You discover there are other people who love this kind of music in this big, crazy city that feels so far away from where this music came from. You dig a few layers down and find this place where you’re not the only one.”
The year is winding down for Spirit Family Reunion: After Harvest Fest they’ll head back out on the road — stopping by the L.A. Bluegrass Situation, San Francisco’s renowned Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, and Austin City Limits Festival — but they’re looking forward to returning home once their tour concludes in October. For Panken, the Harvest Festival is his band’s effort in establishing a musical community event, and if it feels good, they may decide to return next year. But for now, the attention is on reaping this season’s crop.
“We’ve never done anything like this before, and I don’t know if Union Pool has ever hosted anything like this before — frankly, I don’t know if they knew what they were getting into when they agreed to let us do this!” he laughs.
“The nice thing is, from the yard, you can still see the BQE up there with the trucks driving along. You can’t quite forget you’re still in New York City, but we wanted to make it almost like you could forget and maybe be at a county fair somewhere in the country. We’re trying to make it as family-friendly as possible while still being at a 21-and-over venue in the middle of Williamsburg.”