The Littlest Birds, Plush, Dec. 13

Yes, they're aware of the Be Good Tanyas song, "The Littlest Birds." Cellist David Huebner said Tuesday night, "When we first heard the song, we thought it would be a good name. We tried to think of something else, but we kept coming back to it."

The music Huebner made with banjo-player Sharon Martinson sounded as gentle, humble and organic as you would expect from a band with such a name. They are aptly compared to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Both Huebner and Martinson are superb players with an instinctive command of timing. Their voices are tuneful in that Harry Smith Anthology kind of way; while their songs are close cousins to bluegrass music, the cello gives Aaron Copland-esque weight to the skittering banjo sound and envelopes it in a fluidity rare in traditional folk.

The notion of leaving things and coming back to them was woven throughout songs on the duo's sophomore release, Migrations. At one point, Huebner posited that it should be possible to return a single grain of sand to the rock it came from, so strong is the bond of home. The theme also describes the couple's life: They live on the lip of Yosemite National Park, but spend extended periods on a small, favorite beach in Baja California. (This would explain Martinson's seemingly perpetual smile.) The sounds of the ocean and ocean themes were most apparent in "Oh Great Ocean," which featured Martinson's mastery on a fretless banjo, and the as-yet-unrecorded "Mermaid," which the pair referred to as their "sea shanty."

Songs from Migrations provided about half of the material, spread across two sets. The rest were drawn from their first record, Debut, and from the bottomless catalog of American traditional music. Part of the fun of the show was trying to distinguish which songs were not original. Two antiques were particular to the occasion: Introducing "Waterbound," Martinson reminded the rain-soaked crowd that days of rain had us, well, water-bound; and the Elizabeth Cotten classic "Shake Sugaree" was a holiday wish for the audience to be surrounded by friends, family and fun.

Stranded by the Red Room's closing, The Littlest Birds were welcomed at Plush, and then performed again on Wednesday, Dec. 14, as part of the Red Room's commemorative series at La Cocina.


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