An inch of icy snow coated Shelter Island Saturday night, but it would have taken a blizzard to keep Islanders away from the annual January bluegrass concert, an event that never fails to blow away the bleak.
A capacity crowd removed their outerwear, pulled off their mittens and put their hands together as The Lonely Heartstring Band kicked off Sylvester Manor Educational Farm’s 2017 Concert Series at the Shelter Island School auditorium.
Tom Hashagen was the host of the evening, and his group, Tom and Lisa and Friends included vocalist Lisa Shaw on keyboard, Steven Uh on fiddle, Henry Goode Jr. on bass guitar and Scott Hewett on drums. They dived into the song “Hungry Man,” made popular by Louis Jordan in 1949, and set the tone for an evening in which eating was a recurring theme.
The Lonely Heartstring Band’s lead singer and guitarist, George Clements wooed the crowd by introducing “Deep Waters” from the band’s new album, saying, “We’ve played a few islands, this one is an Island unto itself.” The song, with lovely lilting harmonies and fiddler Patrick M’Gonigle’s sonorous yearning passages was like bluegrass songs of the humpback whale.
The band played great bluegrass arrangements of pop music, especially on the Paul Simon song “Graceland,” where bassist Charles Clements showed his artistry. In the second set, the band rocked the J.D. Crowe song, “Born to Be With You” with nary an untapped-toe in the house.
Near the end of the band’s first set, a possible source for the soaring tenor, Mr. Clements vocal stamina was sourced as he expressed enthusiasm for the ginger orange cupcakes on sale in the lobby. He had already eaten one before intermission.
The band mainly skipped the hard-drinking, train-riding, prison-abiding genre of bluegrass in favor of fresh takes. George Clements and Patrick M’Gonigle wrote most of the bands distinctive songs, in which the tides do more rolling than the trains, whales mourn instead of doves, and songbirds sing out against the environmental toll of mining fossil fuel — themes not always associated with traditional bluegrass.
Matt Witler on mandolin and Gabe Hirshfeld on banjo rounded out the band with skill, heart and extremely fast fingers. In Mr. Hirshfeld’s charming introduction to his song, “Big Bruce” he revealed that he named this lovely fiddle tune for a French bulldog he met in a bar, a break with the bluegrass tradition of naming songs after coonhounds.
Mr. M’Gonigle announced that George Clements had enjoyed a second cupcake during intermission, to good effect judging from their rendition of “Songbird,” a protest waltz — a genre they may have invented — with close harmonies and haunting lyrics about the mining of the Alberta tar sands.
The Lonely Heartstring Band delivered extraordinary musicianship and a sound that wove bluegrass tradition with contemporary themes. This was the first in the Sylvester Manor series that will bring bluegrass, Celtic and Northern fiddle music to Shelter Island in seven concerts and barn dances throughout 2017.