Contributed by Claire G. Daily, Salve Regina University ’22
Newport’s Washington Square was abuzz Thursday night, November 18th. The ever-growing crowd waited with bated breath, but not for a glimpse of Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler, or Kathy Najimy, the stars of the Disney sequel Hocus Pocus 2. They were lining up for Laden Valley, a local folk duo who has shaken up the Rhode Island music scene since their debut in the Fall of 2020.
Vocalists Dave Sarazen and Evan St. Martin, accompanied by a full band, sang their clearest harmonies in an intimate concert at the Jane Pickens Theatre. The concert, attended by fans, friends, and family alike marked the release of their first full-length record, Landline Thursday night. Sarazen, a senior at URI, and St. Martin, a wedding photographer, connected last year and began collaborating on St. Martin’s then-solo music project, Laden Valley. The coronavirus lockdown gave the pair plenty of time to write and record, releasing a two-track EP “Vol. 2” in October 2020, and following with Landline a little over a year later.
A little after 7:00 p.m., opening act Spencer Thomas Smith stepped in for the planned opener, Haunt The House, crooning acoustic melodies accompanied by guitar and harmonica, often playing both at once. His set evoked a hazy, laid-back energy with Southern-tinged, bluesy folk songs and honest storytelling. Standout tracks from the New Haven, CT, based singer-songwriter: “Blue Like the Sky” and “Tennessee Mud.”
When a red wash lit the stage and the house lights went down, a resounding cheer came over the audience. Laden Valley appeared, Sarazen donned a wide-brimmed hat and all-black ensemble, and St. Martin sported a double denim look: jeans and a jacket with a white shirt. Alongside their band members: Cameron Macintosh (drums), Andrew Mook (keys), Jordan Wright (violin, mandolin, and keys), Joe Bentley (bass), and Nic Coolidge (electric guitar and lap steel), they strummed the first note of “ Gone.”
“Gone” is featured on both Vol. 2 and Landline. Each song shows its true vocal prowess, with strong, crisp harmonies from the first note. The minimal stage dressing allowed for the music to speak for itself, and it not only spoke, but roared. The album and setlist varied from stripped-down, calm tunes to upbeat jams, many with gorgeous violin solos for Jordan Wright to showcase his intense talent. While the entire band made the music shine, Wright is exceptional on all three of his instruments.
The band played “Stranger”, “Do You Love Me Still”, and “The Sky Is On Fire”, all tracks from the new album Landline, in addition to a spirited cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” In a surprise encore after a passionate audience plea, the artists and fans alike jammed to the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” “The Sky Is On Fire” is a standout song from the new album, taking Laden Valley’s typically calm demeanor and turning it on its head, to create a joyful folk romp perfect for dancing without a care in the world.
Due to the minimalist nature of their production, Laden Valley’s music sounds identical, if not better, on stage as it does on the studio versions. There are no editing tricks on their albums, just the clarity of two harmonic voices, intelligent lyricism, and many skilled musicians that carry the songs to their greatest potential. One thing did stray from the studio versions of the duo’s music: they could gauge their energy from the audience, which provided the opportunity for impromptu solos, freestyling, and camaraderie. The vocalists and the audience all looked to be having the time of their lives: Sarazen and St. Martin riffing on guitar with the other musicians and intertwining jokes through their stories, and everyone doing what they do best: singing at the top of their lungs with good friends, old and new.
If Laden Valley wasn’t the face of the local music scene before, they’ve made their presence clear with this concert and album release. Thursday night’s concert— a night combining masterful music, unadulterated serenity, and joy with the triumph of hard work— made sure of that. At this rate, this duo’s not going anywhere… except perhaps next summer’s Newport Folk Fest and beyond.