Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 2003
review by Steve Senderoff
None of the Stairwell Sisters are biological sisters, but a stairwell would be a great place to hear their powerful, expressive harmonies!
Combine this band's vocal prowess with skilled multi-instrumental chops and a hellbent-for-leather attitude, and you have a
wild funky recording that should please many readers of the OTH, especially fans of the Any Old Time Stringband, the prototypical
all-female virtuoso modern eclectic old-time band. Hailing from the San Francisco Bay area, Stephanie and Lisa (members of the popular
Crooked Jades) and their fellow Sisters produce a program with many surprises. Surprises await the listener in the Sisters'
selection of material. An old-time adaptation of a Bob Dylan song ("Buckets of Rain") co-exists peacefully with a sampling
of Carter Family songs. The Carter material includes an unusual version of "Oh Death" from a young Janette Carter, recorded on
a border radio program in 1939. Bluegrass material from Delia Bell and Bill Grant as well as Ralph Stanley is featured prominently,
but is played with an old-time sensibility. While the band presents music solidly in the old-time vein, inclusion of a tune from
Hank Bradley, new lyrics from Alan Senauke for a Delmore Brothers song, and Evie's original song, "Down to the Door" places
the bandŐs musical aesthetics squarely in the present. Instrumental surprises pepper the band's arrangements. "No Never No,"
a ballad from the 1909 edition of Heart Songs (Joe Mitchell Chapple, compiler, Clearfield Company; reprint edition 1998, Baltimore, MD)
receives a tradition inspired melody by Alice Gerrard. It features an over-the-top bluesy cello solo from Stephanie that slithers like a fat snake.
Lisa's outstanding slide guitar playing is especially prominent in the Carter Family standard "Little Moses." Her instrumental break has a
marked vocal quality. The inclusion of dobro and Hawaiian slide guitar in many of the cuts provides an unusually exciting level of grit to the
overall band sound, notably in the "Crockett's-Waldorf" medley. A tune selection is exactly where those of us indoctrinated into the
Round Peak/festival contest band cannon would not expect Hawaiian slide. Most surprising is the solo fiddle-melodic clogging duet
with which Stephanie and Evie open the Sisters' take on "Hog Eyed Man," literally a real screamer. Although fine instrumental efforts
are presented (notably, one of the tightest banjo-string bass rhythm sections this reviewer has heard recently), the Stairwell Sisters
excel on the selections feature multi-part vocal harmonies. All of the Sisters are accomplished singers, and have no fear of redlining
the tachometer. While not "pretty" ("Orphan Girl" gets a bit nasal), their singing is derived from traditional and early commercial
country music styles. It is intense and moving. "Banjo Pickin' Girl" features five-part vocals and a wall of sound approaching
rock 'n 'roll intensity. Evie and Stephanie perform an especially joyous, seamless duet version of the Woodie Brothers' goofy gospel
chestnut "Chased Old Satan." The high point vocally is Evie and Lisa's duet on Grayson and Whittier's "Nobody's Darling"
("one of the saddest songs on earth"), which features spot-on intonation, clear diction, and expressive, lilting phrasing. This performance
should thrill aficionados of brother (or sister) duets. The recording ends with brittle, hard-edged, eciting ensemble singing on Ralph Stanley's
"Dug-Gunn Shame," in which the Sisters rocket into the high lonesome stratosphere. The recording, made by Lou Judson and Bruce Kaphan,
employs tight multi-micrphone techniques. It is clear, bright, and loud without undue compression. Vocals are very prominent and accurately
recorded with a wide dynamic range and a slight edge and treble boost to increase the excitement and presence. The overall band sound
approaches a roar on a few selections. Nevertheless, the banjo (expertly played by Lisa and Evie, who pay close attention to right hand
touch and full tone production) is clearly present and well captured, as is the string bass heartbeat. Unfortunately, Stephanie's fiddle
could have been recorded at a bit higher level, and it is sometimes hard to tease her rhythmic efforts out of the mix. She shines at providing
lyrical fills to vocal-intensive material. The insert packaging contains full performer credits, illuminating vignettes introducing the selections,
attractive artwork and graphic design by Lisa and Sue. An enjoyable outing!